As the broad bean season draws to an end, with only one bed left to pick, I am revisiting a post from 6 years ago. It’s a recipe I return to every November, buying a packet of smoked salmon cooking pieces especially for this dish.
What the Fava! The Broad bean glut is on. One week they look nice and petite, ready to be eaten raw with a chunk of Pecorino cheese. Blink, turn around, and suddenly they are huge and in plague proportions.
Broad Beans or Fave have a fascinating history but none more so than for our local Italo- Australiani, many of whom migrated here in the 1950s, with broad beans sewn into the lining of their suitcases or hems of their coats. Fava beans played a important role in the Sicilian tradition. When dried, roasted and blessed, they became lucky beans. Some believe that if you keep one in the pantry, there will always be food in the kitchen. Given the size of our broad bean crop, we will be very fortunati this month.
I collected another basket load today and enlisted the help of young chef Daisy, who was happy to…
I wish modern life was as simple as a freshly picked broad bean. Broad beans keep on giving, to us, back to the earth, to the future, and don’t ask for much in return. They are prolific, nutritious and easily grown, but their season is short. When I’m picking broad beans or fava, I feel safe and in touch with something primordial and elemental: they’ve been cultivated for 10,000 years and pop up in all sorts of world cuisines. The recipes are endless and all tempting. I often notice how well these tall plants support each other in the wind when they’re heavy with fat beans. Bending my way through the pale stalks as I pick the plump young pods, I often reflect on the grander issues of life. Gardening is my thinking space, free from distraction and noise and it is, in a sense, quite subversive . It’s a world away from the culture wars that dominate my screens, where new causes and self -righteous stances pop up daily and divide and split those on the same side, each issue mutating along the way. Young versus old, boomer versus millennial, carnivore versus vegan, on and on it goes. Is this cartoonist a misogynist? Change the Date, Nup to the Cup, farmers versus city folk, who has the holiest milk, almonds versus cows, will the real water thieves please raise their hand, diet religion. Division is the name of the game here, and those climate crisis deniers who speak untruths, who adopt slogans without meaning in response to catastrophe, dealers in fake religion, prayers and hopes and rhetorical nonsense, the used car salesman in a baseball cap holding a lump of coal, or those sporting silly hairstyles, the cretins in power are laughing all the way to the next polls. Unlike our co-operative and timeless tall broad bean plants, progressives around the globe are divided and distracted, too busy with their own point scoring and breast thumping, privately self congratulatory at their stance on… fill in your own issue. Beware of smugness and mindless memes. Read more books and turn off the screen. View with suspicion new language, appropriated words from African Americans, if it makes you feel superior, separate or better than others. Keep your eyes on the main event. There is only one earth. Divided we lose.
My Best Broad Bean Soup. Crema di Fave Fresche con Pecorino Romano.
freshly picked broad beans, 800 gr or more
one large potato or 2 medium, peeled and cubed
one medium onion, finely chopped
new season garlic, 3 or more, finely chopped
EV olive oil
stock, home made or water with stock cube/powder
fresh marjoram leaves, torn
sea salt, white ground pepper
grated pecorino romano cheese
In a heavy saucepan, sauté the onion and garlic in olive oil gently for 10 minutes till soft and golden.
Add the chopped potato, and cover with stock. Cook on medium heat.
Meanwhile, shell the beans and cook them in boiling water for around 1 minute. Drain, cool the beans in cold water, then shell them. The delicious green centre will pop out easily between finger and thumb, once parboiled.
Once the potato is almost soft, add the green shelled broad beans and the torn marjoram. Cook gently for another minute or so. Season well.
Add the contents to a blender or food processor and buzz until smooth.
Serve with freshly grated Pecorino Romano. Of course you could use another cheese, but Pecorino and broad beans( fava) make a wonderful marriage, and are a traditional match.
My sometimes editor, Mr T, suggested I remove all the ‘F’ words from this post, but I’m more than happy for you to reinsert them wherever you like. This post was inspired by an overdose of activity, by way of comment in the Guardian, with a whole heap of supposedly progressive younger people who like to use the meme, #okboomer, an ageist term destined to divide activists on the basis of age. Use it and be the unconscious tool of fascism.
To be frank, my kitchen is often really messy. At times the cleaning tasks seem daunting. But there are some very good reasons, or justifications, for this. The storage is dated and inadequate for my needs, with limited drawer space and old fashioned cupboards with useless dark corners. The benches are too high and cause back, neck and shoulder pain. As the cheap pine cupboard doors become unhinged, I simply rip them off. Better them than me. The white laminate bench tops are in a sorry state: there’s no point replacing them when the whole kitchen needs a total overhaul. My kitchen is no ‘House and Garden’, and hardly instagram worthy, even on a good day. Occasionally I ponder a few pockets of beauty. My eye, like the lens of a camera, is selective. I have a love/hate relationship with my kitchen. It is a slave driver, but then, as I’m very attracted to frugality and seasonal food, a slave I must be.
I’ve retaliated by commandeering most of the laundry for storage, which now houses the larger kitchen machines which aren’t in daily use ( rice cooker, slow cooker, blender, microwave, second fridge ) as well as shelves dedicated to preserves, empty jars for future preserves, potato and onion storage, seasonal garlic bulbs kept in the dark, shelves of cake tins – loved for their shapes, patina and history,- small moulds and forms for puddings and soufflé, antique Italian coffee pots just because I like them, collected old biscuit tins to send off when full to someone in need, a huge and ancient gelataio, and that insane breeding area for plastic storage containers, the bane of my life, those necessary evil things, often missing their lids. This area, an annex to my kitchen, is indispensable and strangely, most of the stuff gets used.
In My Kitchen, the tasks seem endless. If I’m home, my annoying but workable kitchen is put to the test all day. Produce from the garden or market is preserved, conserved, frozen, dried, pickled, bottled, and brined. Today I dealt with the olives I picked back in April this year. The lidded 14 kilo container, a throw out icing container from the local bakery, sat in the kitchen for 7 months full of curing olives. Today they moved into jars, and although still a little bitter, it is an old style Greek taste that grows on you. We were forced to pick last season’s olives when green, thanks to the marauding birds that sampled most of the olives before spitting them out on the ground. I’ve always admired how smart some birds are, but I do wonder when it comes to olives, why the birds must try each and every one. Last April’s olives were not as plump as usual, given the low rainfall. I followed the very simple method given here by Mt Zero Olives.
I put aside a jar of my preserved lemons last June and have just pulled them out from a dark cupboard. I use chopped preserved lemon in salmon patties, couscous, and add them to smashed baby potatoes, the latter a very nice side dish with fish.
It’s a fortuitous day at the market when there’s a huge snapper carcass to be had for two dollars. Snapper makes the best stock, so long as the gills and all traces of blood are removed before cooking. Into the pot he goes, along with some wine, onion and some aromatics. Once cooked, the stock is then labelled and frozen, to be married later on to a good Carnaroli rice, and perhaps a handful of prawns.
Other fishy preserves this month included anchovies under oil, a time consuming labour of love, the recipe outlined in my previous post here. Acciughe sott’olio is a great addition to a board full of different antipasti for lunch.
As young ginger is now in season at the market, it’s time to make pickled ginger, another lovely condiment that improves with time, which will be a welcome addition to the table in summer, although I do know a young girl who enjoys pink pickled ginger straight from the jar. There is always a seasonal herb, vegetable, fruit or fish to dry, pickle or preserve in some way. I’m happily a martyr to the cause, and will be ready for Armageddon, or at least, Armageddon hungry.
Free range eggs, one dozen a day.
Diane Henry’s book on preserving. Borrowed twice, now must buy.
Sydney rocks, sourdough butter lemons
Using up old bread for croutons
The daily bean soak
Lovely black olive and rosemary sourdough
Header photo, Pumpkin risotto with crispy sage leaves. Time to use up the remaining stored pumpkins from last Autumn. They are now at peak ripeness.
Today is un giorno festivo according to the bus timetable, which simply means it’s Sunday, a holiday, a holy day, as opposed to all the other working days of the week. I’ve arrived in Castellina in Chianti, a small village 15 kilometres from Siena, after a slow but pleasant bus trip through rolling Tuscan hills dotted with small historic settlements with names that resonate more loudly than they should: Ficareto, Colombaio, Quercegrossa, Croce Fiorentina, San Leonino. I mentally translate every printed word that flashes by: names of villages and rivers, traffic directions and road signs, as figs and doves, large oak trees and Florentine crosses, saints, wells and fountains overload my thinking. This habit is mentally exhausting. Last night’s drift of snow left no visible sign in these hills, but it’s still cold and bleak. I’m wearing a thick brown coat- one that I purchased from the bi – weekly market near the medieval wall just outside the centro storico in Siena. It’s my bag lady coat, coarse and graceless, but warm. I feel like an outsider, an imposter, and terribly lonely: this coat doesn’t help. I’ll blame the coat for my sense of estrangement, given that all the Senese look so elegant in their long, fur trimmed woolen coats, not unlike those well- behaved citizens in a medieval Ambrogio Lorenzetti fresco. Not to mention the local taste for expensive, narrow, fine leather or reptile skin shoes, elegant and totally impractical, which don’t fit my broad Australian feet. The stall holders at the Sunday market in Castellina in Chianti are now packing up: I’ve arrived too late to pick up a little antique hand worked pillow case or vintage ceramic plate. The village looks deserted and uninviting. I’m not sure why I came, or where to go, not having done much research before making this lone journey. A church bell chimes in the distance signalling that it’s already past one pm, a reminder to the secular that it’s time to eat. Distant church bells can be comforting or dispiriting, arousing a sense of belonging or sadness. Today’s bells ring melancholy. A sense of cognitive dissonance overcomes me: it seems that the more I learn this language and bathe in the familiarity of Italian sounds, the less certain I feel about my place here. The empty streets loudly announce that everyone else is already seated at a table, either in a family home or warm restaurant, coats now hanging on pegs by the front door, primo piatto about to be served, a bottle of Chianti Classico proffered, as loud and excitable conversation fills the room.The choice on the menu won’t be novel or foreign: Italians are far more comfortable with regional food, or even more precisely, the food of their paese, the local village or district, food that is cooked simply and according to tradition. That’s what is so appealing about Italian food. At times, I’ll admit, Italian regional cuisine can become stubbornly insular and unbending too. Campanilismo, a word derived from campanile, the village church bell,suggests a rigid adherence to one’s local food, method of cooking, ingredients, dialect and ways of doing things: it’s about local pride. The bell tolls for many reasons.
I’m feeling anxious now and walk more desperately. The town is much smaller than I anticipated. If I’m not seated at a table by 1.15, I may miss out on lunch altogether. I’m looking for a small restaurant or trattoria, one that isn’t too well patronised by noisy extended families in elegant clothes, having attended, or pretending to have attended, church. Pretending to attend church is an art form in Italy, a performance that I greatly admire. You don your Sunday best, make a brief appearance at the church with the family, double or triple kiss your friends at the front steps, enter and sit down for a bit, pop out the front for a smoke (male), or chat loudly with your friends in the mid to rear rows (female), while ignoring most of the action at the front altar. The reverberating monotone of the priest echoing around the walls, ‘Santo, Santo, Santo il Signore Dio dell’universo. I cieli e la terra sono pieni della tua gloria’, produces a ready response from the front two rows of pews. High pitched, croaky voices pray in unison, the pious and the permed: small boned and ancient women kneel, rosaried and devout, as they prepare for their future in paradiso.
I peer through the window of a small and very plain looking trattoria and see a tangle of bright yellow pasta lying on a wooden bench, liberally dusted with flour. A plump middle aged woman in a plastic cap adds more to the pile- pasta freshly rolled and cut for today’s lunch. The menu board says Tagliatelle al Burro eSalvia. ( tagliatelle with butter and sage). I don’t read any further, I don’t need to know what’s on offer for the piatto secondo. I walk straight in.
When the eggs are plentiful and spring vegetables and herbs announce their readiness to be picked before bolting to heaven, I think back to that simple meal in Castellina in Chianti. It was elegant yet comforting, it’s success arising from restraint. Freshly made egg pasta is a joy to make and consume soon after. It requires only 2 ingredients: eggs and flour, along with a bit of kneading, resting, rolling and cutting and that’s all. No salt, no oil, no sourdough starter, no colours, no heavy artisan type flours, no chia seeds and no fuss. The sauce should gently coat the strands. Ideally, you want the fresh eggs to sing, their golden yolks colouring the mixture. At this time of the year, fresh pasta is almost saffron in colour, the eggs are so good. In the case of Tagliatelle with Butter and Sage, the sauce comes from lightly browned butter in which you crisp a few sage leaves. You could add a grating of nutmeg. It is served with grated parmigiano. Authenticity, although a fraught concept, requires you to stick, as much as possible, to the traditions of a country’s cuisine, if you have the ingredients on hand to do so. Once you start fiddling with a recipe, expect the results to speak a different language. Restrained is a good word to describe the elegance of Italian food. I hear those bells ringing. Time to make fresh pasta.
One of the classic ways of conserving seasonal food, especially in rural Italy, is to preserve food in jars ‘sott’ olio’ or under oil. Usually vegetables, such as peppers, artichokes, eggplant and mushrooms, are partially cooked, grilled or brined beforehand, then covered completely in oil. The oil excludes air and acts as a seal against deterioration. The shelf life of these country treasures is shorter than other foods preserved using the bottling or ‘canning’ method, and once opened, they should be stored in the fridge.
One of the most enticing treats done in this way is anchovies under oil. I have vivid memories of the first time I tried anchovies conserved in this way. It was February 1993 and I was living in Siena for a month to attend a language course in Italian at the Scuola di Dante Alighieri per Stranieri, a short course wedged between my first and second year Italian studies at university. The course was demanding, with daily classes from 8 am to 1 pm, with a short coffee break in between. This left the afternoon free to explore the countryside or to wander the streets of Siena before returning home for a wine, a snack and more homework. One lunchtime, a fellow student and his wife invited me to lunch- he was, like me, an older student and was studying Italian to enhance his wine writing career. He recommended a little osteria, a simple place, with an appealing array of antipasti dishes displayed at the front counter. And there they were, sitting neatly in a rectangular glass dish, acciughesott’olio, pink tender fillets of anchovy glistening under golden olive oil, carpeted above in finely chopped parsley. I ordered a large scoop, along with some other bits and pieces and a panino. Anchovies have never been the same for me since that day. When in Italy, I always order a small container of acciughesott’olio from an alimentari: they taste nothing like the jarred or tinned variety.
Last Wednesday as I was trawling the fish market at Preston, a big shiny pile of fresh anchovies caught my eye. I could barely contain my excitement, largely because in all the years I’ve been frequenting fish markets around Melbourne, I’ve never seen them offered for sale. I bought one kilo, raced back home and spent the next hour, with some help from Mr T, de-heading and gutting hundreds of these tiny fish: no bigger than my little finger, this was a real labour of love, the anticipation of eating the finished product inspiring me to gut neatly and well. The following recipe is for those who might come across fresh anchovies in their travels and who don’t mind some tedious gutting. The gutting becomes quite easy once you get a rhythm going. Once gutted, they are easy to brine and conserve. Don’t confuse fresh anchovies with sardines- they are two quite distinct species: anchovies are much smaller and look and taste completely different.
Fresh anchovies preserved under oil. Acciughe sott’olio.
1 kilo fresh anchovies
red wine vinegar
EV olive oil.
First of all, wash the fish a few times in a large colander to remove some of the blood. Then start the de-heading and gutting process, well armed with a strong wooden cutting board and newspaper for the scraps ( perfectly fine sent to the compost heap). As you cut off head, push down against the board and drag it away from the body- you’ll find that the guts come out with the head in one simple movement. If the anchovy separates into two parts, pull out the backbone: if not, leave it there, to be removed later.
Once prepared, lay in a glass or ceramic container – I used a large earthenware gratin dish. Liberally sprinkle with course salt, lifting the little fillets through the salt, then arrange them neatly in the dish. How much salt? Quanto basta, as they say in Italian recipes, q.b. for short, which means as much as you think they need. Cover with red wine vinegar. Cover the dish, and put it in the fridge for 24 hours.
The next day, sterilise two medium sized jars for the anchovies. Drain the brine from the fish, remove their fine backbones, which will pull out very easily, then pop into jars, layering them with a little finely chopped garlic and some oregano if you wish. Don’t overdo the extra flavours as they may come to overwhelm the fish over time. Fill the jars with olive oil, knock the jars against the bench a few times to remove air-pockets, then top up with more oil as needed. The contents must be covered. Put on lids tightly then store in the fridge. Leave for around five days before eating. As olive oil turns cloudy when cold, remove the anchovies a few minutes before serving and place in a small bowl. The oil with clear in no time in a warm room.
As the flavoured oil is a component of this antipasto dish, you want to use good tasting oil, but perhaps not a top notch one. I used Cobram Australian Extra Virgin olive oil, a good quality everyday oil and one that tastes quite good too.
Serve as part of an antipasto selection, or simply place them on top of good sourdough bread, along with parsley and black pepper, and eat them when the mood takes you.
The recipe was inspired by a post by Debi who wrote about finding fresh anchovies in Greece, around one year ago. I remember that post well, thinking that I would never see the fresh species land in my local fish market.
Stepping back into my vegetable garden after three months away, I’m immediately overcome with horticulture shock. It’s not only a sense of disorientation and sadness over neglect, but a looming frustration that the work ahead might be too difficult. The cavolo nero plants are now treelike, with thick grey trunks and yellow flowers waving in the breeze high above my head. The bees are happy. Mizuna lettuces resemble a triffid forest, delicately frilled in maroon and topped with more yellow flowers. The coriander, endive, parsley and chicory follow on their march towards the sky. There are weeds galore, some trying to smother the garlic, requiring gentle hand pulling so as not to disturb the still emerging bulbs of our precious annual crop. Most weeds are valuable additions to the compost bin: they might not be edible, but many have sought out valuable trace elements in the soil. Those in flower are drowned. Beds full of broad beans support each other like good friends, their black eyes winking with promise, roots setting nitrogen in the soil.
Once the borders are clipped, the pathways revealed, the beds pulled into shape, the snow peas supported and tied, and edible greens harvested for pies and soups, I can see my way forward. My vegetable patch, my precious orto, is a labour of love, it’s a statement about the value of fresh food, and it’s an act of defiance against the capitalist diet.
Ingredients for a Garden Soup. Minestra dell’Orto
1/2 kilo fresh borlotti beans, podded or substitute dried borlotti if fresh are unavailable.
3 cloves garlic, 2 finely chopped,
fresh rosemary branch
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 celery sticks, finely chopped
2 Tablespoons EV olive oil
4 large silver beet leaves, finely shredded, or more if small
3 handfuls big pasta, such as mezzi rigatoni
homemade vegetable stock ( ingredients listed separately in method )
salt, pepper to taste
Steps for a tasty spring soup
Make a vegetable stock from chopped carrots, onion, celery,bay leaves, parsley stalks, mushroom stalks. Cook for 30 -45 minutes.
Pod the borlotti beans, add to a pot, with one whole garlic clove and one small rosemary branch. Cover with water, bring to the boil, lower heat and cook till beans are soft and liquid is brown and thick, around 30- 45 minutes. If using dried beans, soak overnight, then cook until soft. Time will vary depending on the age of the beans.
Make a soffritto with one chopped onion, two chopped garlic, chopped celery in the olive oil. Add a little dried chilli and more finely chopped rosemary to the mix if you like. Cook on gentle heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions have softened but not coloured.
Add the silverbeet ( chard) and toss around for a minute or so to coat in oil. Then add the cooked beans with some of the cooking water. Add stock, enough to well cover the beans and silver beet. Bring to the boil then reduce heat and cook for five minutes or until the greens have softened. Add salt.
Add the pasta, making sure there is enough liquid in the pan, and cook until the pasta is al dente.
Serve topped with a drizzle of good olive oil, grated parmigiano reggiano and crusty bread.
The tourist area known as Amed refers to a long stretch of coast in the North East of Bali, running from Culik, a traditional Balinese village located inland, and incorporating seven locations along the coast, Amed, Jemeluk, Bunutan, Lipah, Selang Banyuning and Aas.
Amed is the most recent district to be developed specifically for tourism in Bali. Over the last 20 years it has become a major diving venue and is very popular with French tourists and younger backpackers. Until recent times, Amed was one of the poorest areas in Bali. Local industries centered around fishing and salt farming- the land near the coast being too dry and unsuitable for farming. Kadek, our homestay host, happily chatted about the old days in ‘Amed’. His grandfather, like most other Balinese from the inland villages near Amed and Culik, owned a small plot of land on the sea which was used for salt harvesting by hand, a labour intensive process with very poor returns. Family members also went fishing during the dry season, and eked out a living with one cow and a few vegetables during the wet season. Most of the salt was bought by a large conglomerate from Denpasar each season. It was hand harvested and cured in hollowed out coconut tree trunks. There are still a few salt farmers today, including the central government run farm on the coast near the Amed end of the tourist strip.
Kadek built his first two homestay rooms on this small parcel of land 5 years ago, then added two larger rooms recently. Along with the income from running this accommodation, which is limited to the dry season, Kadek is a master dive instructor, driver, and fisherman. Kadek’s multi -tasking life is fairly typical of the other Balinese people along this strip. One morning at 7 am, Kadek purchased two tuna from one of the incoming fishing boats: he invited us to a beach BBQ that evening. The BBQ tuna had a wonderful smoky taste, and was served with sambal matar, rice and stir fried vegetables. During the day, various family members kept an eye on the business as he drove other tourists to visit the nearby water palace and temples inland.
We stayed in the area between Amed and Jemeluk, a three kilometre section of this funky paradise. As the purpose of my visit was to be closer to Mt Agung, Bali’s sacred mountain, this section of the coast, which faced north, provided a constant view of Agung to the west. I woke at dawn to the presence of the holy mountain emerging from the morning haze, and gazed in awe each evening at sunset, as Agung donned his more dramatic night cloak of cobalt and indigo, a divine and auspicious presence appearing to rise directly from the sea. Gunung Agung is 3031 metres high and viewed from Amed, it appears perfectly conical in shape.
Most tourists come to Amed to dive or snorkel. There are numerous ‘plongée‘ (diving) companies along the road- and most of these are signed in French as well as English, offering accredited courses in diving. Other tourist activities include early morning fishing trips, run by a local fisherman in traditional Jukung fishing boats- you keep your catch to bring home and BBQ at your homestay – as well as free diving, yoga and snorkeling off the beach, especially at Jemeluk. Mr T enjoyed his snorkeling at Jemeluk where the fish took a fancy to him, while I declined, deciding that the current and breaking waves were not conducive to happy snorkeling. Kadek explained that the sea is usually much calmer and less cloudy at this time of year, but the full moon created these stronger currents, and, due to some recent cremations, some of the ancestral spirits were still uneasy and had not yet been released into their next life, causing rougher water than usual. Hinduism informs everything in Bali and it doesn’t take long to appreciate that what appears to be an element of animism within Balinese Hinduism goes much deeper: a spirituality based on learning from the environment around you. I was happy to hang out on the day bed on my balcony and read, under the presence of my mountain friend.
The atmosphere in Amed is laid back and there are still many reminders of old 1980s Bali, with a prevalence of smaller homestay accommodation options, fish BBQs on the beach, and jappels ( jaffles or toasties) on some menus. The warungs serve delicious food, especially local fish, such as Mahi- Mahi, Barracouta, and Tuna, which come simply grilled, accompanied with rice and urab– a Balinese vegetable dish. There appears to be a height restriction in place and most of the tourist businesses ( accommodation, restaurants, diving companies, small supermarkets) are small in size, as they have replaced the tiny sea front family salt farms. You won’t find much in the way of traditional Balinese culture along this strip. The Balinese don’t live here- they have never lived directly by the sea. The ritual of morning flowers and incense is sadly missing here, there are no temples, and no gamelan sounds or evidence of ceremony. These Balinese activities would be found in the villages nearby. It is a remarkable tourist locale and one can only hope that it stays small, natural and resort free, and doesn’t develop along the lines of the south- west coast tourist ghetto of Kuta-Legian-Seminyak.
The wealth of Balinese religious ceremony and the calendar of events which structures the life of the Balinese, both religious and lay, is impressive. We wake up early and note that the gardener is working dressed formally in a white udeng (Balinese male head wear), a double layered heavy sarong and a freshly pressed shirt. The young women in the restaurant serving breakfast from 7 am are dressed in tight fitting sarongs, kabaya and sashes, their movement graceful and appearance more curvaceous, as they busily bring trays to their guests. Every month, Balinese dress in ceremonial clothing to celebrate full moon and at some point in the day, they will visit a local or family pura ( temple).
On full moon two days ago, we left Sanur to travel up the east coast of Bali towards Amed, a long drive with many interesting spots along the way. We stopped at Goa Lawah Temple, one of the most important temples in Bali, perhaps second only to Bersakih, the mother temple. Goa Temple translates to bat cave, and it is in this darkened cave that Hindu priests conduct religious ceremonies on a raised platform. Goa Lawah temple was established in the 11th century by Mpu Kuturan, one of the early priests who laid the foundations of Hinduism on the island. It’s a popular stopover for holidaying locals, who arrive with offerings and prayers before continuing their journey. Every month, many Balinese visit the temple for full moon ceremonies, but prior to their visit, they must first walk to the sea opposite, wash their feet and collect holy sea water to sprinkle on themselves, a necessary cleansing ritual before prayer. Every six months, a much larger ceremony is held where Balinese from all over the island will visit for the day. It is a holy shrine, akin to Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral or Rome’s Basilica di San Pietro.
Although we came prepared with our own sarongs and scarves, always tucked away in a bag for temple visits, we accepted the sarongs and scarves offered at the entrance gate. These days, the most famous temples charge a small admission price which involves dressing the tourist appropriately in a sarong and scarf: this ensures that tourists will not offend with inappropriate dress, and at the same time, raises funds for the upkeep of the grounds.
Despite this, some tourists offend through their behaviour. Picture this: within the darkened cave, a priest dressed in white makes offerings to the Gods, holy water is sprinkled, bells ring, incense is burning, and basket offerings are laid at the altar. Soon a small black bird will be sacrificed. The locals sit on the ground below, mostly dressed in white and gold, hands raised in prayer. Reverence and auspiciousness can be sensed, understood and respected by most of the tourists who, like me, stand and observe from a distance, taking photos from the rear of the temple. Then, out of nowhere, she arrives: she places herself midst the the faithful who, along with the priest, will form a backdrop to her poses for instagram. This young, ignorant young woman gives tourists a bad name.
The looks on the faces of the Balinese says it all. It is no wonder some Balinese Regencies are considering barring tourists from temples completely. Can you imagine this happening in the middle of a mass, or other religious event in a European church, mosque or synagogue?
Over the years, I’ve witnessed many cremation ceremonies in Bali, from one massive ceremony for a royal prince in Ubud years ago, to the smaller weekly cremations at a nearby temple. Often, you hear a cremation ceremony before you see it- a loud percussion band echos through the nearby streets, alerting all to the procession on its journey to the sea, down to the pura dalem, the temple associated with death. A special ancient instrument called a gambang is only played at cremation ceremonies. A large wooden xylophone with bamboo keys is struck by one band member holding two wooden hammers in each hand. Cremations are dramatic and colourful religious events, and westerners may attend if dressed correctly and maintain a respectful distance from the main family groups.
Last week’sngaben, Balinese for ashes, was a well planned and anticipated event involving the cremation of around 500 bodies. A madeeng was held the day before the actual burning at the seaside temple. Thousands turned up for madeeng, with everyone dressed in their finest white and gold ceremonial outfits. Above a sea of white umbrellas, below 5000 people either marching or forming guard as it circled three times around the main streets, along the main Bypass road, and then back into the suburb.
A Balinese cremation can be extremely costly. It is important to put on a good show, to impress the spirits but also to maintain prestige in the family and community. For poorer folk who cannot afford $25,000 or more, group cremations are affordable but still very impressive. Bodies are buried for a period- often for two years or more- until the family can save up for a ceremony in conjunction with other families in the banjar or local community.
For foreigners who wish to attend Balinese cremations or preceding events, appropriate dress is essential. The dress code is simple. Women should wear a sleeved tshirt, shirt or lace kabaya, if you happen to have one, and on the bottom, a sarong, tied with a sash or scarf. Men should wear a plain cotton shirt and sarong. If not, long trousers are acceptable, along with a sash. It is important to observe the rituals from a distance and stay away from the actual burning ceremony, and generally not get in the way of the family. Attending a madeeng requires a similar dress code, though this event is not strictly religious, but does form part of the overall ngaben. Despite dressing for the occasion, you’ll still stand out as an oddity. I know Mr T always feels a little ill at ease in his funeral sarong- it’s never really tied properly, and he whips it off as soon as he is away from the ceremony. I wear a modern stretch fabric sarong that isn’t as comfortable as plain wrapped fabric in the midday heat, but at least it stays on and I don’t feel compelled to wear trousers beneath it. Being discreet, respectful and courteous to those around you goes a long way at a ceremony and makes up for your awkward appearance.
Having said, this, there are plenty of tourists who do the wrong thing, mostly through ignorance. Below, this bikini clad woman walks into a Balinese Temple area during a busy cremation ceremony. She continues on her path, determined to get her precious photo. Invariably, it is the European tourist who is completely ignorant and ethno- centric when it comes to Balinese culture, religious ceremony and dress code. For some reason, Europeans find it troublesome to don clothes after the beach. Photo taken, September 2018.