Just when I thought we had turned the corner, and winter had signaled an early arrival, along came a big sunny weekend, throwing me back into the sensuality of summer and late autumn. There’s a hot breeze blowing today: outside a lawn mower buzzes somewhere in the distance and the roar, now approaching now distant, of weekend Harley motorbike riders echoes along the valley below. If you listen carefully, there are insects too, a neighbour’s dog, and other domestic sounds, but still no jet noise above.
My kitchen routines happily shifted into winter mode last month. After the first cup of tea, I get stuck into things early- soaking the beans, feeding the sourdough levain or baking bread, making stock with leftover bits of vegetable, and deciding on the two meals of the day. Anzac biscuits always appear in April and the first of the Nanna soups are made, an old fashioned thing based on Mckenzie’s soup mix, the most comforting of soups. It’s a seasonal shift and one I really enjoy. But with this recent May Indian summer, we are back working in the vegetable patch, getting sunburnt, layering compost, and picking the last of the borlotti beans, small zucchini and yellow cherry tomatoes. Another bucket of late picked figs arrives to laze about on the north facing windowsill- if we leave the doors open, European wasps find their way straight to the ledge to seek out that ruby jammy flesh. The long lasting red peppers keep ripening. I’m yet to find a recipe for these but may dry some, make some Biber Salcasi or preserve them sott’olio, under oil. The summer – autumn season has been hugely productive this year but now I’m looking forward to the chards, bitter leaves, snow peas and brassicas of the coming season.
This month’s In My Kitchen is largely a photo post of the food that I enjoyed picking or cooking recently. As I read the posts of other contributors, especially those of my North American friends, I can almost hear that big sigh of relief and joy as they embark on their first dinner party or interstate family visit, now that they’re immunized. ( See Mae’s post here) It’s a liberating feeling for sure and I feel much the same way. Thanks Sherry for hosting this monthly roundup. See Sherry’s Pickings for other like minded kitchen posts.
This month’s In My Kitchen post takes the form of a small, April journal, interspersed with photos of ingredients and dishes that entered or exited my kitchen recently.
At the Beach, Easter ’21
I’m lying on a comfy bed inside my caravan on Good Friday afternoon. The day is hot and still, though the cooling sea air finds its way through the windows and ceiling extractor, making a little lie down even more enticing. The small space is darkened by blockout curtains: it’s womblike, cocooning, soothing. Someone is tuning a guitar in the distance, followed by a sampling of acoustic bluegrass notes. Wattle birds make scratchy chatter in the nearby banksia trees. It’s not quite #vanlife because it’s a caravan and I’m probably disqualified anyway. I think it must be the small space that is so appealing about a van, reminiscent of the cubby houses I used to build in my childhood, with planks of old timber, worn blankets smelling of shed and dusty hessian bags.
There’s not much to do except walk, read, write or plan the next meal. Fortunately, some good things, like hot cross buns, were made at home and brought to the beach camp to share with others. This year’s hot cross buns were a big hit with me, and I’m a very fussy customer. Over the years I’ve attempted quite a few different recipes and I may have finally found one to suit my discerning palate. The two recipes I used this year were similar with regard to ingredients but differed in technique. I’ve learnt quite a few things along the way, and am happy to say that the 32 buns were all eaten, with praise offered by my appointed samplers, Daisy and Helen. Sourdough buns last much longer than yeasted buns. Cinnamon affects the rising action of sourdough so should be added later, or at least after an initial autolyse. Butter is better added in chunks rather than melted, and is also best added at the end of the mix. In hindsight I preferred using a stand mixer for the dough over the hand built version, given the wetness of the mix and the delay in adding the butter. An overnight proofing in the fridge makes the dough much easier to shape. Allow 24 hours once you begin your mixing and monitor ambient temperature: around 23c-24c is ideal. I’ve finally invested in a thermometer/hygrometer, an important tool in the bread making process. I may make some Not Cross Buns to practise my technique throughout the year.
If you’re not into sourdough, yeasted hot cross buns are fast and easy to make, assuming you have a hungry horde to feed, as they don’t keep very well. Why bother making your own buns? The answer partly lies in the image below, taken from a Coles packet of HC buns. Bakers Delight and Brumby’s buns are also loaded with numbers too, with 27- 32 listed ingredients. Small independent bakeries are more likely to make buns without a bunch of numbers: they are more expensive but then, they’re meant to be an annual treat. Real butter goes on top of a good bun, not a mixture of oil, dairy and numbers, known as spreadable butter.
Coles Hot Cross Bun Info
The best shared meals at the beach are fairly well planned. We either decide on a particular cuisine or theme. Indian nights are good value, with family members bringing their favourite curry, which drives nearby campers mad with desire as the onions and spices slowly cook. Pizzas done in the Baby Q Weber work well but are very slow, giving new meaning to the notion of slow food. I usually bring 8 balls of 48 hour fermented dough from home for our beach pizza night, but supermarket pizza bases work well enough when desperate. My favourite flour for pizza, buns and bread is Wholegrain Milling’s organic stoneground baker’s flour which I buy wholesale in 25 kilo bags.
April 11. Thoughts from the couch on a wet Sunday.
I’ve been reflecting on the idea of the anti-cook, and whether I might become one. You know those days when a bowl full of numbers in the form of a packet of Indomie, a popular Indonesian instant noodle brand, is all you can imagine. Adding a chopped spring onion is going too far down the road of kitchen mess. Or a cup of instant miso soup for an overdose of salt, the zen answer to bonox. There’s no shortage of good food here: I have a garden full of it. But putting it all together requires a herculean effort as well as a desire to eat well. No one told me that one of the side affects of the Covid Jab is loss of appetite and a disinterest in wine. This is outrageous! Why didn’t they tell me on the carefully printed side effects sheet? Along with kitchen apathy comes a keen desire to spend more time in a horizontal position watching streamed TV series. An Easter Lindt chocolate or two and a heat pack are my new daytime friends. If you’re over 50, join the club and suffer a few days of sloth and achy joints, or perhaps smoke one, but don’t become vaccine reticent. That packet of Indomie has 17 mysterious additives which are more likely to cause more blood clotting than the Astra Zeneca Jab. An anti- cook I may become, but I’ll never be an anti- vaxxer. I’m part of the herd, and hopefully part of the solution.
Thanks once again Sherry for hosting the IMK series. At present I like writing more than cooking and so my contribution may seem a little curlballish, or googly to use an old cricket term, but that’s life. Go to Sherry’s Pickings for more inspiring world kitchens.
It’s tomato time once again and that means passata making month. We grow a wide variety of tomatoes each year, but always reserve two beds for saucing tomatoes, either Roma or San Marzano, both cultivars of egg shaped tomatoes. This year I grew San Marzano from seed, starting in late winter. I planted out 12 seedlings and made sure they were well spaced, at around 35- 40cms apart, which guarantees a bigger crop. They are situated in full sun all day, another factor in considering the siting of your tomatoes. San Marzano and Roma tomatoes store well as their thick skins prevent early rotting or splitting. In the height of the fruiting season we harvest around 5 kilo per day: I’m pleased to see the crops slowing down now dwindling to around one kilo per day.
Dealing with this constant flushing means addressing sauce making in a very different way from the big annual sauce making day favoured by many. I don’t have a cool room or sufficient fridge space to store masses of tomatoes so we make sauce every second or third day. The following approach takes around 10 minutes of preparation, and minimal equipment. The resulting thick sauce captures the taste of summer to use throughout the colder months. The sauce consists of tomatoes only, no basil, herbs or garlic.
What you need:
3 kilo of San Marzano tomatoes or similar egg shaped tomatoes
a large heavy based stainless steel stock pot
an old fashioned mouli or passatutto ( metal hand cranked food mill) with larger holed disc.
rectangular plastic storage containers
Weigh the tomatoes and wash them if necessary. Remove ends and half, or quarter if very large. Throw them into the stock pot and cook on high heat for approximately 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure they don’t catch on the base of the pan. Place your mouli over a bowl. Pour the mushy tomatoes into the mouli. Once all the juice has fallen through, turn the mill to extract the remaining pulp. Scrape the thick pulp from beneath the holed plate and add to puree. Discard the skins and other left overs in the mouli. Return pulp to the stock pot and cook on medium heat for around 30- 40 minutes to reduce and thicken. When cool, place into plastic storage containers. Label with date and freeze.
Yield. 3 kilos will yield around 1.5 litres or so of thick passata/two tubs of 750 mls.
My mouli is one of my most useful tools. It’s easy to clean, easy to store and fast to use. It’s the perfect implement when you want a certain texture to your food. Sometimes they turn up in opportunity shops so if you see one, grab it. They come with two or three interchangeable discs.
Interesting Uses for passata.
I deliberately leave my passata plain so that it can be used in a variety of cuisines. Once defrosted, I cook half with some garlic in olive oil, dried oregano and a little tomato paste to use in the week’s supply of Italian dishes such as pizza, pasta, eggplant parmigiana, or Italian soups such as Pasta e Ceci or Minestrone. The remaining un flavoured passata is added to Indian or Chinese dishes. Last night I made a quick Indian sauce using passata with added garlic, some homemade tomato kasundi, and cream. This was used to sauce some lentil balls and became a quick version of Malai Kofta. It was a huge success, and consequently I now must make this year’s batch of Kasundi, which also uses another kilo of plain tomato thick passata. A few spoons of passata can be added to a stir fry along with soy or oyster sauce. Passata enriched with onion, garlic, chilli and smoked pimento is an excellent sauce for baked beans. And when tomatoes are sad and woody in winter, enliven them with a tub of passata to make a brunch shakshuka.
I have a great fondness for the city of Melbourne. I recall travelling to the city by train frequently as a child, though back then, it was always called ‘town’, a term I still like, akin to the Italian concept of ‘centro‘. ‘Town’ back then meant the centre of Melbourne, particularly the commercial hub from Flinders street through to Bourke street via the arterial network of wonderful dark lanes and arcades. The route, chosen by my mother, usually included various shortcuts underground then along Degraves St, crossing over to the ornately tiled and arched Block Arcade where she spent time as a teenager working in a florist shop. My father spent his working life in the Customs House, a grand old colonial building in Flinders Street, which now houses the Immigration Museum. If he knew beforehand which train we were on, he would wave to us from his second floor window, not that we could see him, but my mother would know. ‘Wave to Dad’, she would say as we passed by. Going to town was part of our upbringing and education: train travel was central to where we lived. It became my escape route from bland suburbia. The grid layout of the city was the key map and we learnt to draw it at an early age, along with learning by rote the names of the stations along the line. The train trip grew in excitement as the view of the industrial docklands appeared to the right, a warning that we were nearly there, followed by the frightening proximity of a dark grey Dickensian looking building to the left, the deeper shadows and grandeur of the city’s architecture, Dad’s Customs House, and the final arrival at Flinders Street station, with subways lined with white and green tiles, spittoons, people in a hurry and men in hats. The highlight of a trip to town would also involve lunch, usually at Coles Cafeteria. Lining up with a tray, and being permitted to choose from an array of pies, cut sandwiches in points and a jellied sweet was the only time we ever ate away from home.
To this day, I’m still very fond of trips to the city, though my train journey is much longer and doesn’t trigger any flashbacks of looming ancient buildings and the scenery of my childhood. As I’m not an avid shopper, I’ve found a new excuse to visit the city more often, or at least I did until the Melbourne lockdowns began. The Melbourne City Library is conveniently located in Flinders Lane, the most vibrant library in Melbourne. By ordering books on line, I had a wonderful excuse to travel along the pulsating lanes of Melbourne, which are memory lanes for me. Of course this library is now closed for browsing, and during lockdown, closes completely.
I’m not sure why Mr Tranquillo suddenly produced a book from our overflowing and somewhat shabby home library: perhaps I had been reminiscing about these times. He found the book in an op shop some years ago, though I have never laid eyes on it before today, which is a good enough reason not to clean out or prune the library. Edwardian Melbourne in Picture Postcards ¹, includes a wonderful selection of old postcards held at the State Library of Victoria. One page is devoted to each, with details of the location, the printer of each, and a transcript of the letter on the back. I now have another legitimate reason to visit the city, to capture the modern equivalent of each photo, taken from the same location. Standing in the middle of the road, and attempting to photograph above a sea of people may present a few problems.
Below, a selected photo postcard from the collection, taken in 1913 and printed in three colours in Germany, followed by my photo taken in November 2020, when the city of Melbourne, post lockdown, was still very quiet. And the book which inspired this post.
As often is the case, my February kitchen post will look a little like a tour of the orchard, as this month is most fructiferous. This abundance is due to a few factors: the orchard is now mature and is producing far more fruit than we can ever use, the garden has finally developed its own microclimate, and most importantly, we have experienced an unusually high rainfall in our locale, the second highest in our 40 years of record keeping. The birds are not so interested in the fruit crops- ripe nectarines have fallen to the ground: no cockatoo or parrot gives them a second glance. The rabbits, the most destructive creatures during years of drought, are not interested in ring barking, and the grass is still green in the paddocks. We now have 64 fruit trees, which includes two nut trees and 10 olive trees. Much of that fruit travels through my kitchen between January and April. Some is left on an outside table for friends and family to help themselves. This season is a rarity, and in these times of the pandemic, where we go in and out of lockdown (another one was announced today in Melbourne), this glut is a blessing. I sometimes feel like Anna Frith, as she roams through orchards of unpicked fruit in that extraordinary novel, Year of Wonders, set in 1665 during the plague in Eyam, England. ¹
Apples ripen in waves, with heritage apples producing in different months. I was mulling over the word ‘heritage’ this morning as I stood in the early morning rain taking photos of my Rome Beauty apples. Has ‘heritage’ become the new wank word of the fruit and vegetable kingdom, just as artisan, bespoke and atelier became overused in the last decade? I’ve become a little suspicious of the word ‘curate’ too, overused as it is in the shallow lands of the advertiser. But here I am with lots of old style apples, so I guess the word ‘heritage’ may stay.
The pears are nearly ready to pick with only two varieties coming in- the Beurre bosc (a great keeper) and Clapps (a poor keeper). The latter will be be used the moment it’s picked, in pear clafoutis, pear and almond torta ( my handy recipe here), or gently poached in saffron and wine.
The tomato glut is easier to handle. Three kilos will make a wonderful rich soup ( my recipe here) and another kilo or so lands in a gazpacho. After that, they are sauced, or eaten on toast. I’m happy to have too many.
I feel like a child again when I enter the dark world of the quince tree, the heavy hidden fruit inviting me to dream, not so much of the kitchen but of Renaissance painters of fruit.But it’s not their turn yet….
Thanks Sherry for indulging me in my fruit fantasies, The fruits do get cooked in my kitchen but my photos of them hanging about in their wondrous world, waiting to be picked, looked a lot more interesting than my plates of food. Go to Sherry’s Pickings for more kitcheny thingsthis month.
This summer I’m working my way through my most recent Ottolenghi cookbooks, Simple and Flavour, and finding quite a few classics to add to my repertoire. These sweet potato chips are a tasty, economical and quick to prepare and make a useful side dish or snack. Sweet potatoes store very well and are often cheaper per kilo than potatoes which is a bonus, especially during those months when only bland, tasteless potatoes are available. Sweet potatoes are not, however, a superfood, unless you need a huge injection of vitamin A. The superfood marketeers put this tuber in that mythical category. They are as healthy or unhealthy as a regular spud, depending on how you cook them. See the infographics pages here for more nutritional info.
Sweet Potato Chips, serves six to eight as a side.
Ihalved this recipe and still found we had rather too many. If you do cook the full amount, you may need more trays than suggested in this recipe, and two shelves, swapping half way through baking. The potatoes need to be placed in a single layer on the trays. Preheating the oven to 220º C guarantees successful baking in this short time frame. The potatoes can be prepared up to six hours ahead, up to the point of placing them in the oven.
sweet potatoes, 1.2 kg, peeled and sliced into 1½ cm thick chips. (see photos)
1 Tbsp sweet smoked paprika
½ tsp cayenne pepper
3 garlic cloves, crushed
30 g polenta
100 ml olive oil
1 Tbls sumac
flaked sea salt
Preheat the oven to 220ºc, fan on.
Mix the sweet potatoes in a large bowl with the paprika, cayenne, polenta, oil and 1 teaspoon of flaked salt. Once combined, tip the sweet potatoes (and all the oil) on to two large parchment- lined baking trays and roast for 25-30 minutes, stirring gently once or twice, until the potatoes are cooked, crisp and golden brown.
Remove from the oven, sprinkle over the sumac and 1 teaspoon of flaked salt, and serve at once.
I must admit, I have a love-hate affair with my Ottolenghi cookbooks. Over the years I’ve found his recipes to be needlessly complex, with long lists of ingredients that often clash. If you’re a traditionalist, his fusion approach can seem iconoclastic. Yet despite this, I keep putting my hand up for more. I now own 5 of his cookbooks: Plenty (2010), Jerusalem (2012), Ottolenghi The Cookbook (2016 ), as well as his recent editions, Simple (2018) and Flavour (2020 ). The last two are the best and the most useful. The recipes in Simple are geared to every day cooking, while those in Flavour are more exciting, pushing the ‘f bomb’ (Ottolenghi’s term for flavour bombs) to the limit. I enjoy reading his short preface to each recipe, advising what may be made ahead, substitute ingredients, and most importantly, how long the food keeps. This information is often sadly missing from many modern recipe books.
This summer I’m planning to work my way through Ottolenghi’s Simple and Flavour, two books that I bought during lockdown. My choice of recipe will be determined by what’s growing in the garden along with ingredients that are readily available. I hope to share the more successful recipes that get a tick from us, recipes that will become family favourites rather than one night wonders. The following recipe is a Middle Eastern take on the classic Italian dish, Pasta e Ceci (pasta and chickpeas). While Ottolenghi has chosen Gigli, a wavy pasta that means ‘lillies’ in Italian, any short pasta of a similar size and shape may be substituted. I chose casareccia, a good sauce carrying pasta shape that I keep on hand.
Gigli with chickpeas and za’atar. Serves 4.
45 ml olive oil
1/2 onion ( 100g) fnely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tsp ground cumin
10 g fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
25 g anchovy fillets, finely chopped
1 lemon, finely shaved skin of half, the juice to 2 Tbles
480 g cooked chick peas, or 2 cans, drained.
1 tsp soft brown sugar
400 ml chicken broth – substitute vegetable stock if vegetarian
200 g gigli pasta ( or other shape such as conchiglie, orecchiette, or my favourite all rounder, casareccia
50 g baby spinach leaves
15 g Italian parsley,, finely chopped
1½ tsp za’atar
salt and pepper
Put the olive oil into a large sauté pan and place on a high heat. Add the onion, garlic, cumin, thyme, anchovies, lemon skin, 1/2 teaspoon salt and a good grind of pepper. Fry for 3-4 minutes, stirring often, until soft and golden. Reduce the heat to medium, then add the chickpeas and sugar and fry for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the chickpeas begin to brown and crisp up. Add the chicken broth and lemon juice and simmer for 6 minutes, until the sauce has reduced slightly. Remove from the heat and set aside. You can make this in advance if you like and warm through before serving.
Bring a large pan of salted water to the boil. Add the pasta and cook according to the packet instructions, until al dente. Drain and set aside.
Stir the spinach and parsley into the chickpeas: the residual heat of the sauce should cook the spinach., but if it doesn’t wilt, just warm the chickpeas gently on the stove. Transfer the pasta to the pan of chickpeas and stir to combine. Divide between four bowls and sprinkle the za’atar on top. Finish with a drizzle of oil and serve.
A few notes on this dish.
Cooking the first stage ahead makes sense, allowing you to throw the dish together when ready.
If you use home cooked chickpeas, you might find they don’t brown or crisp up- this isn’t important to the successful outcome of the dish. canned chickpeas are more bullet like and will, most likely, stay firm and brown.
I tend not to drain pasta as a rule, but simply lift it from the pot of water and into the sauce, with tongs or a pasta claw. In this way, some of the remaining salty water clinging to the pasta enriches the sauce.
I used chicken stock powder by Massel for the broth, which is completely plant based and useful for everyday stock.
If you want to turn this back into an authentic Italian dish, simply remove the thyme and the Za’atar, and maybe add some finely chopped tomatoes during the first step of cooking.
It goes without saying that we are all rather pleased to see the end of 2020. As a friend Cristina, from a Un Po’ di Pepe succinctly points out, Addio 2020 is too polite a term to farewell the year from hell: she offers some fitting Italian sendoffs including the colourful Vaffanculo 2020. I’m not prepared to make any commitments or plans regarding this New Year. Should 2021 be any different? This will depend on the successful uptake of the vaccine and its availability worldwide. Meanwhile the main threat to our planet, global warming, still crouches in the other corner, ready to spring back into action with more destructive weather events around the globe. At this time last year, Australians were far more passionate about taking radical steps to deal with the urgency of global warming. If there’s one positive outcome from Covid-19, it’s the reduction in emissions as a result of minimal air and car travel during 2020. The skies are still silent, and only recently has the road traffic snarl returned to its pre- Covid level.
Looking back over the year 2020, there were more kitchen highlights in my life than usual, since I spent most of the year in that room. I came to enjoy winter at home, improved my bread shaping techniques, sourced some wonderful flour via online shopping, and shared more shopping activities with others. I discovered a reliable fishmonger who was prepared to deliver to our fringe country area. The woodstove provided a permanent source of hot water for beverages while the small baker’s oven below was used to reheat food. Because we were home for most of the year, we wasted less food. We didn’t dine out- except for a rare take away treat of fish and chips from our nearest village. It was quiet. Home life became far more rewarding (I’m excluding house cleaning from this broad statement ) and the car was rarely used. We recently installed solar panels and look forward to the benefits over the coming months. Maybe being forced to change one’s behaviour, courtesy of Covid, is one small answer to solving the climate crisis.
Looking backwards, highlights from my kitchen in December 2020 included:
Lobster for two, with a warm butter sauce infused with garlic.
For the first time in many years, Australian lobster became available to locals as the two major supermarket chains bought the annual Western Australian quota and marketed lobster for $20 a piece. They were small, and came precooked and frozen, thus sparing the need to kill the delicious beast humanely. Thanks to the ongoing trade war with China, (whose trade war it really is and why we’re having one is a long story ), the usual Chinese market for lobster suddenly disappeared. It seems rather odd to me that in ‘normal’ years, Australians are not able to buy an affordable Christmas crustacean. I remember the stories my grandparents told me about their Friday night treat, a crayfish and a bottle of beer to share. They were solidly working class with rarely a shilling to spare. Lobster, more commonly referred to as crayfish in those days, was considered working class food during the 1930s. It is now the food destined for the wealthy in Hong Kong and China. Long live the trade wars that allow Australians to eat locally caught foods.
These two sourdough breads saw us through the week after Christmas and both are my favourites. I try not to make them too often. The dark rye bread teams beautifully with any smoked fish, along with dill pickles. It is also perfect for breakfast with Seville Marmalade. One of my goals for 2021 is to master the art of smoking fish. Other than wholemeal rye, the flavours include anise and fennel seeds and orange rind, with molasses providing colour and caramelisation to the crust. The other loaf is a Panmarino, a white loaf flavoured with fresh rosemary and encrusted with salt flakes. It is loaf supposedly evoking the bread of the D’Este family of Ferrara in the late 13th century. I’m still playing with this recipe, but if you’re keen to make it, the recipe is here.
Baklava instead of Christmas pudding.
I was quite happy with this baklava but felt that the inclusion of honey in the syrup tended to dominate the flavour. I added both walnuts and pistachio in the mixture. Have you ever tried to chop pistachio nuts? It’s not a job I can recommend, and even the very patient kitchen hand, Mr Tranquillo complained. This dessert lasted well for a week and I ate most of it for afternoon tea in the week following Christmas. Couch, book and baklava- I can highly recommend it. Prosecco may be added.
Vegetarian Sausage rolls
I made a huge batch of vegetarian mini sausage rolls for my daughter’s Christmas catering event. At some point in our tradition, sausage rolls crept onto the menu as a substitute for those who don’t/can’t eat the seafood starters, or for fussy kids, or committed vegetarians. These were popular with all her guests, regardless of their food preferences, so I guess they’ll stay on the menu. The recipe can be found here, though I’ve slightly adapted it since then.
Mango Fundraising time
Every year, some of the local schools organise a mango fundraiser. This year our mangoes arrived in early December, supporting the after school drama programme at Eltham High School. Some are still lolling in the fridge and will soon be pureed and frozen for a summer mango mojito.
I’m so glad that Christmas is over. January is one of our busiest months as all the garden and orchard produce lands in the kitchen in abundance. The garlic, 225 bulbs, has been stashed in the dark for the year ahead, 12 kilo of peaches have been picked to date and the zucchini are being transformed into pickles, a good summer condiment to serve with feta or cheddar cheese on busy days. Thanks once again Sherry, of Sherry’s Pickings, for continuing with this series. It has been such a wonderful place over the years to connect with like minded people.
Australian road trips are long and often arduous affairs, depending on your view of the world. In our recent getaway after Melbourne’s ‘Ring of Steel’ was removed, which allowed Victorians freedom of movement within their own State after many months of hard lockdown, we travelled way out west to visit a friend who lives in the Wimmera, then headed to Portland on the south west coast, returning home six days later, a total journey of 1110 kilometers, not counting side trips. There are two schools of thought when it comes to planning a road trip. The old school approach plans on getting from A to B as quickly as possible. It involves travelling along major routes and highways at the speed limit. Fuel stops, lunch and toilet breaks are hasty, usually consisting of take away food from huge highway service centres, soulless and treeless places. The second approach focuses on back roads, with preference given to minor C or D roads for most of the journey, stopping along the way to walk around small towns, visiting historic sites, and taking photos along the way. Back roads are rarely frequented by trucks, speed demons, or people attached to a time frame, a construct that is based on the idea that the destination is more important than the journey. In a back road journey, a country town’s bakery might offer a tasty pastie for lunch while a packed thermos of hot water provides a cup of tea along the way. There’s always a park with picnic tables under a shady tree, a gazebo or picnic hut in an Australian country town.
My preference for back road journeys began at some point during the late 1980s after reading the iconic road trip story, ‘Blue Highways’, by William Least Heat Moon ( born William Lewis Trogdon). Travelling around the USA in an old van, Heat Moon chose only the “blue highways”. He coined the term to refer to small, forgotten, out-of-the-way roads connecting rural America: these roads were drawn in blue on old maps. During his three month journey, he visited small towns with interesting names, meeting quite a few characters and documenting the history of each place along the way. He took along a copy of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’, considered to be the quintessentially American book, published in 1892, poetry which had little appeal to me when I was obliged to read it back the 1970s. I’m wondering what the archetypal Australian book might be to take along on an Aussie road trip in a van in 2020?
Travelling around Australia’s back roads that connect old towns, there’s more chance to collide with history. These old towns were important markers along the way before the major highways bi-passed them, cutting them off from passing trade. Nowadays, many are struggling to survive though quite a few are having a renaissance too. By revisiting them, there’s a chance to relive a long forgotten childhood memory of a trip taken so many years before, or to find ancestral farms and burial grounds, or to discover the importance of agriculture in the life of the Australian economy, a thing we often take for granted. Many small towns are graced with marvelous bluestone buildings, constructed by skilled Scottish stonemasons in the 1850s, as well as a surfeit of churches, most now obsolete, shrines to the many sects that divided the Christian religion during a previous era. Many Australian small towns were built after the success of gold mining or the sheep boom or during the grand building era of the 1890s. In each small town there’s a war shrine listing those who had died in the Great War, a reminder of how war devastated farming families and communities. Perhaps there’ll be a memorial avenue of large trees, or a bank of a river by which to loiter, or a country pub with a counter meal to distract you totally from your trip.
Driving along major roads you’ll miss this wonderful exploration of the past as well as the present so peaceful and appealing. But peel away this colonial veneer, the buildings, the churches, the old houses and quaint statues, the white history of our country places, and you may begin to see, perhaps for the first time, the indigenous history of the land, spelt out in land forms, native flora, in hidden billabongs and creeks.
On our recent road trip, the first leg took us to Woodend, a 99 km trip, via the country C or back roads towards Wallan, Donnybrook, Kalkallo, a most convenient and gentle way to leave the city without meeting much traffic or speed. This route skirts just beyond the outer fringes of Melbourne’s large suburban sprawl, the route notable for the beautiful ancient red gum trees, some believed to be 500 years old, that are dotted in paddocks along the way. Looking towards the horizon near Kalkallo, Bald Hill, the well worn hill of an old volcano, dominates the flat land. Bald Hill was noted in the diaries of our colonial ancestors who settled in this area in the 1840s. The large hill, seen from every road and angle, would certainly have been a significant marker for the indigenous people, prior to white invasion. The Merri Creek rises nearby. This creek was formed over many years by incising through the lava surface near Wallan, and then flows in a southerly direction for 70 km until it joins the Yarra River in Fairfield near Dight’s Falls and subsequently flows into Port Phillip Bay. Many Melbournians are familiar with Merri creek, given that it passes through many of the older suburbs of Melbourne, but few are familiar with its source. The Merri Creek was also vital for the first nation people of Melbourne.
“The Wurundjeri-willamhad regular camping spots along the Merri Creek which they would visit according to season. In winter the low lying land next to the creek was subject to flooding and the general dampness made it an unsuitable place for camping. At this time they would move to the hills. In summer time when food supplies were plentiful along the creeks, clans would visit one another and host meetings and ceremonies.
Women were responsible for 90% of food collected, of which the staple were plants. All Wurundjeri-willam women carried a long fire hardened digging stick known as a kannan. They used their kannan to dig up the root or tuber of the murnong or yam daisy. It had a bitter taste in winter but became much sweeter when spring arrived.
The creek supplied the Wurundjeri-willam with an abundance of food such as eel, fish, and duck. Women waded through the Merri with string bags suspended around their neck, searching the bottom of the stream for shellfish. Emu and kangaroo were hunted in the surrounding grasslands.
In the forests and hills, possum was also a staple source of food and clothing, The flesh of the possum was cooked and eaten, while the skin was saved to be sewn into valuable waterproof cloaks.
These cloaks were fastened at the shoulder and extended to the knees. Clan designs were incised with a mussel shell tool into the inner surfaces of the skins. Wearing the fur side next to the body showed off the designs which were highlighted with red ochre.” *
As Melbourne’s Northern Growth Corridor begins to swamp this area with more suburban subdivision, cultural mapping is taking place in these areas near Wallan and Kalkallo. The Merri Creek was a significant route for the Wurrundjeri-willam people. Archeologists may reveal stone sharpening tools and middens along the billabongs and creeks, and perhaps not come across any sites of significance, but intangible indigenous history can be felt in these areas. You don’t need intact evidence, a birthing tree, a canoe tree or ancient fish traps to know that this land is culturally significant. And you don’t need a history book to tell you that massacre of the indigenous people took place nearby.
I’ll be returning to this area, which is not too far from home, next time to take photos of a land that reveals many surprises if you just take the time. I’m afraid that if I wait too long, the area, and the signs you can still read, will be buried under new housing estates.
A few holiday questions for you Dear Reader. What book would accompany you on a road trip in your country? Do you prefer to take C roads when travelling, assuming that you have all the time in the world? What makes a road trip special for you?
This is part one of my recent road trip. There will be more legs offered soon, I hope.
It is only in very recent weeks that we have returned to some semblance of ‘Covid Normal’ here in Melbourne. This has had a huge impact on my life in the kitchen. While the meals I prepared for two were interesting, healthy and varied over the long 8 months of no socialising, I managed to lose the desire to cook for larger groups, or provide for little gatherings at home. I’ve lost confidence in cooking: I now prefer spontaneous meals, rather than planned events. A corollary of this is that I no longer write blogs. Let’s hope this little post will be akin to dipping my big toe in cold water before diving right in.
One thing I’ve noticed, now that I’m able to travel more than 5 kilometers from my residence, is that food shopping has become rather special: it’s louder, brighter and more tempting than previously, akin to a 3D technicolour movie experience after a life of black and white. The local supermarket supplied me with the basics during the ‘iso’ months, but I’m excited to be travelling to my preferred food outlets again. Years ago, one relied on the inner suburbs for more interesting goods, be they Middle Eastern, Indian, Italian or Greek. With the gentrification of the inner suburbs and consequent rent hikes, more interesting food supplies can now be found in developing suburbs on the fringes. Fortunately for me, this means a drive through our back hills and dales which ends up being relatively close.
My vegetable garden is booming. There’s nothing better than fresh stuff picked on the day of cooking. This year I’ve planted two types of zucchini – Romanesco are producing well at the moment and I love the more delicate flavour of this variety. Blackjack zucchini are in flower and I mainly use these for pickles and soup. Two of my late cauliflower have grown into florets- something I find more desirable than creamy heads. These stalks are really nice in stir fries or battered with besan flour. I’m planning to save the seed of this non heading variety
I took a month off sourdough bread baking- to match my month of doing nothing much except watching Netflix. But happily I’m back into it with a vengeance, especially now that I can order from a wholesaler who supplies top organic flours. During covid, I relied on Amazon for flour deliveries, but can now travel to pick up the good stuff.
We recently enjoyed a short getaway to Western Victoria, once the metaphorical ‘Ring of Steel’ was lifted from Melbourne. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to the Bakehouse in Portland, where Kim bakes the most amazing sourdough goods. There are wonderful breads to choose from, but her sourdough patisserie goods are irresistable too. The range changes daily- fresh bombolini, danish, brioche, croissants and more- all light and buttery but made with a sourdough levain. The Bakehouse Portland is only open from Thursday to Sunday, and it’s best to arrive early. Her bakery is at the rear of 31 Percy Street Portland, VIC, Australia. Once inside the shop, you are transported to a classy French Patsisserie: I was surprised to learn that Kim began making sourdough only 5 years ago and learnt mostly from youtube and instagram, and not in Paris. There’s hope for us all, you just need the passion. If you’re travelling through Portland, do not miss this bakery.
The youngberry bush is flushing daily. I think it’s time to make jam again.
There are always a few dozen fresh eggs in my kitchen. I sell around 5 dozen each week which subsidises the cost of grain and fresh straw. My girls have a good life runnning through the orchard and hiding in the berry bushes. One strange thing that happened during lockdown was the secret expansion of the flock and the hatching of chickens. Yes we do have rather too many, but who can resist a lavender coloured Pekin Bantom with attitude?
This year’s garlic crop is curing in the shed. It takes a month or so to correctly cure garlic for long storage. The harvest is now finished, with a count of 230 garlic bulbs, enough to keep the vampires away for next year. Thanks Sherry, of Sherry’s Pickings, for hosting this series. You can follow Sherry’s link for more worldwide in my kitchen posts.