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Heroes and Villains (Chapter 1)

January 8, 2012

Thanks to our recent discovery of a previously unnoticed vermin habitat, I spent a good part of this weekend reorganising my reasonably extensive collection of books, which has lately been stored in my parents’ garage. Happily our furry friend Ratty had left them largely untouched with the exception of Michael Moore’s Dude, Where’s My Country which may well have left a bad taste in his mouth, thereby saving the rest of my printed matter from becoming rat snacks.

Despite the sweaty conditions, this labour was an unanticipated delight. Like Hornby’s Rob Fleming reorganising his record collection, I embarked on an autobiographical journey of my reading life. Unlike him of course, I did not reorganise my books autobiographically, indulging instead my inner librarian and painstakingly categorising and alphabetising them. That’s how I do. But I did create a small collection of my most favourite and beautiful tomes to be near me always; some new but many long forgotten. Most of them are the books that have inspired me the most, particularly as a writer, and require regular reference and rereading. I came up with a Hornbyesque shortlist of some of my favourites, by no means exhaustive but a collection of items that have reinvigorated my literary excitement.

Shortstack

Top 5 Most Inspiring Books (or Collected Works) I Saved From Rat Consumption This Weekend

1. Helen Razer: Everything’s Fine Fucked; Gas Smells Awful

Helen Razer was the first person to make me realise that you can simultaneously be unashamedly intelligent, piss funny and have phenomenal taste in music. And that it’s OK for girls to swear and be argumentative and even offensive if they fucking feel like it and/or for the purposes of hilarity.

Probably the greatest tragedy ever to occur in the Twitterverse (aside from the current vomit-inducing Warne/Hurley charade) was the day Ms Razer deleted her account, after many months of hilarious banter, to avoid possible ‘derailment’ for speaking her extraordinarily insightful but admittedly divisive mind (following the actual derailment of colleague and fellow leftwing warrior princess Catherine Deveny). Like her, I am highly critical and unafraid to voice my strong opinions in public forums, from right here to Twitter and the pages of my local newspaper (and wherever else anyone cares to publish my demi-coherent ramblings). I realise that these opinions and the way they are sometimes expressed may be offensive to some, and I am unapologetic. The fact is, many of the media I engage with are reactive, and I have no desire to moderate my reactions, particularly when they are both truthful and potentially hilarious. Whether I succeed in provoking the reaction I seek is another question, but people seem to read the shit that I write, so I must be doing something right. As a young woman Helen Razer almost singularly gave me the courage to do this (though later on I would discover Marieke Hardy and shriek with delight on a regular basis at the potential for the use of swears as punctuation). I am sure that my mother is regularly horrified.

I bought Everything’s Fine at the height of Helen’s broadcasting career in the 1990s which coincided with my mid-teens, needless to say a formative period. I remember gingerly peeling the backing off the helpfully provided ‘FUCKED’ sticker to apply to the front of the book and feeling triumphant; ‘I’m right, and this book proves it!’

Essentially a survival guide to navigating the shitful realities of (post)modern life, with special reference to Hey Hey! It’s Saturday, I vividly remember  laughing until my ability to breathe was comprimised upon first reading Razer’s pernicious prose. This delightful passage, about New Ageism for fun and profit, in particular remains with me and really sets the tone for the book:

Quite apart from violating five third-world cultures in a single afternoon, these people are responsible for creating a niche market for New Age music. Now, there’s a place for a stitch of the Orb, Tricky or even The Aphex Twin in my own time. But you know, enough is enough and sometimes you just really NEED to play Back in Black. I used to really enjoy getting facials until every beauty salon became an ‘aesthetic therapist’, replaced my favourite chemical peel with essential oils that gave me a rash and started piping dinky Orca The Stupid Fat Whale Seaside Music through w-bins next to my ears. This diffident ooze attacks me at every turn and succeeds in only making me want to piss. And who is this ditzy Rapunzel shit called Enya? When is she going to choke on a poison apple? Why does some slappable skinny brunette slag who managed to stop sticking her fingers down her throat just long enough to how to use some substandard sequencing software have to whine about cock-sucking green fields and clouds and the western European goddess tradition every time I go and eat in a restaurant. There’s a burial mound baby, in County Meath and it’s got your stupid name on it, Enya! I’d rather listen to Bill Wyman’s solo album. I’d rather eat mystic dolphin poos. Nothing, not even Italian house remixes of Celine Dion dueting with Michael Bolton with solos by Kenny G, John Tesh and Yianni with lyrics by Alanis ‘Isn’t It Ironic Not!’ Morisette, makes me so livid and full of acrid tension.

Imagine my delight upon discovering that my inner monologue had a public voice more expressive and erudite than my own! To the right-wing Boltophiles who think leftwing ratbags are stifling free speech with political correctness, suck on that.

Moving right along, I had been meaning to reread Gas Smells Awful for a while. Though I do not recommended it to people who are scared of crazy ladies and postmodern theory, Gas Smells Awful is probably one of the best books by a raving nutbag for raving nutbags ever written. I am a raving nutbag, and I need help. Gas Smells Awful provides this desperately needed help not only through its practical advice regarding the usefulness of Nietschze and witchcraft as an adjunct to traditional methods of treating mental illness, but also simply by reassuring one that one is not alone, and that things will get better. Indeed, is a great source of hope that if Ms Razer has managed to overcome her mental infirmities to become and remain the impressive and respected cultural critic that she is, then perhaps I too may one day realise my dreams of transcending the blogosphere to exchange my opinionated rantings and/or more nuanced written work for cash money.

I began reading posthaste, and was delighted to find this passage which reflected my current bibliophillic activities, and my proclivity for collecting in general and the role it plays in my life:

The things one collects, the objects and articles and remnants from pop or high culture one prizes, can offer great solace. I was recently reminded of this by a Walter Benjamin Essay called ‘Unpacking My Library’ which a friend suggested I read when I was moving my own book collection. I had asked this person, who as a particular interest in Teutonic-type philosophy, ‘Why am I getting off on reorganising my books so much? Am I, like, some materialist capitalist object-fetishising pig dog?’ Fortunately, this bloke said that no, I was merely reveling in the anarchy of memories. Well, jolly good. Hate to be a capitalist object-fetishising pig dog. Benjamin asserts that we build a dwelling of the artefacts we adore and disappear within them. That our precious bits and pieces, in all their chaos, can confer a sense of order and comfort.

Once again, this makes complete sense to me. I do not simply collect vintage ceramic vessels in the shape of foodstuffs because they are so hideous it is irresistible, it’s because it makes me feel better! As long as I’m not sitting in a rocker on the porch pitching cats at passers-by, I feel that a slightly eccentric affinity for owl paraphernalia and model flamingos is totally acceptable. I would sincerely like to publicly thank Helen Razer for providing me with these and so many other valuable insights, even if the fact remains, I am still noticeably single.

2. John Birmingham: He Died With a Felafel In His Hand; Dopeland; Leviathan. 

Speaking of literary inspirations, this man is a behemoth. Who could have anticipated that the author of a generation-defining biographical account of drug-addled sharehouse living would become the epic polymath he is today, churning out reams of fiction, non-fiction and opinion of extraordinary breadth and quality, from his Quarterly Essay A Time For War to Leviathan, the history of Sydney that redefined what written history can be. I don’t know, maybe those who knew him and his work when Felafel was published in 1995 would have predicted his subsequent success; I didn’t know him then, I was 12 and I didn’t even know what a bong was. But I know him now, and he’s a fucking legend.

I first read Felafel when I was living in sharehouses of various levels of squalor and chaos in Sydney and still revel in Birmingham’s peerless ability to tell a cracking story, so it has always been a text that is close to my heart. I am particularly fond of my copies of Felafel and Dopeland however, due to the manner in which they were procured.

Very recently, one of my closest friends was required to delete a certain person from her life, a person who I was none too fond of from the moment I first met him, and who subsequently betrayed my friend and my grudging trust in an epic display of arsehattery. Deleting this person involved convincing him to come and pick up what appeared to be the extent of his wordly possessions from her house, which I can only assume he had left there in order to keep a foot in the door that was so clearly going to be slammed behind his arse on the way out.

Because my friend is a reasonable person who possesses little malice, she gave said individual ample opportunities to collect these belongings, resulting in a tedious saga that will not be recounted here. Suffice to say, it culminated in a final demand that if they were not collected within a specified two-hour period they would be generously distributed amongst the community’s charity shops. This, of course, got immediate results, so we decided made a day of it, a group of buddies descending on her house to help move his crap out onto the lawn while simultaneously taking the opportunity to enjoy a barbecue and some cold beverages. Prior to his arrival, I decided to souvenir something as a symbol of the wake of hurt and destruction he had left in his path. Frankly, Felafel and Dopeland were standouts, and I knew the author would be delighted at my relation of this undertaking. Said previous owner may well be reading this, in which case, I’ve got your books, dickhead. And your limited edition Best of TISM CDs. Just in case you were wondering.

This, while a personal triumph, is a diversion from the moral of the story which is that John Birmingham is one of my all time literary inspirations, not just for his ‘work on paper’ but for his prolific online opinion pieces which, like Helen Razer’s, make no apologies for their divisive content. I mean, he has a blog called Blunt Instrument for Goddess’s sake. I don’t know what the trolls who feebly attack him in the comments threads are expecting. And to cap off his written achievements, I admire the way that Birmingham interacts with his readers and peers through his blog and social media. For a budding writer like me, the opportunity to connect with writers like him and my lady friends Maggie Alderson and Charlotte Wood is a rare gift that would have been almost unimaginable pre-interwebs. Thus ends my circuitous Birmingham fangirl moment.

3. Gillian Mears: Fineflour

Gillian Mears is a somewhat reclusive female author of renown and one who happens to come from Grafton, the New South Wales northern rivers town I grew up in and in which I currently reside. Indeed, my first (and only) literary accolade is the memorial prize for art and literature held annually at my high school in honour of her mother Sheila Mears which I won with a short story I wrote when I was 17 (the aforementioned Maggie Alderson may be interested to know I purchased her Pants on Fire, another evergreen favourite, with a portion of the prize money).

My reading of Mears’s work, of which I have long been a fan, has always been coloured by the fact that she was, at one time, the wife of my greatest mentor, who is also now my closest friend and confidante; moreover, the book that launched her literary career was a thinly veiled and viciously untruthful autobiographical account of their brief relationship.

That said, her collection of stories titled Fineflour, which I read as a young girl and is ostensibly about life in Grafton, changed my ideas about what writing can be. Her poetic prose is terse yet evocative. Though the names in this book have been changed I can see, hear and smell the places she is writing about, places which I have known from childhood and have observed both closely and unconsciously over a lifetime. More importantly I can feel them deep within me when I read these words. These places are portable, and I have taken them with me on many travels. I have encouraged people close to me to read this book to get a sense of who I am and where I am from. It has also taught me that great literature does not have to be about great people and places; that the ordinary is worthy of reflection and elevation. Patrick White taught me this too, though Mears’s work does not begin to approach the emotional complexity and nuanced storytelling of works like the Tree of Man and the Solid Mandala, which have also been a great influence in my adult life.

The story ‘Ferryman’, one of my favourites, recounts the last day of a ferry driver on his watch. I can only imagine that the story describes the picturesque and still-functioning vehicular ferry at Lawrence, a charming feature of the landscape of my youth.

Vehicular ferry sunset, Lawrence, 2009

This morning, the mist trails soaking the paddocks by the river, was his last. He didn’t think he’d ever see a moon so pale and fat. The moon moved slowly, a half-grown slug, casting reflections into the ripples near the ferry. Across the other side of the river, Garnett’s milk truck was passing the poplar trees. He thought he’d miss the poplars most of all. They were fast-growing trees. Every nine years workers from Fineflour’s match factory would chop down the silver trunks. The chut of axe on wood or, more recently, the squeal of saws, leapt across the river. He preferred the sounds of ploughing and the silence of new saplings being planted. It was silt river soil, dark and rich with earthworms, He watched the trees grow tall and the leaves turn from translucent yellow into green, into dead leaf drifts. The trees formed cathedral-like avenues. At certain angles from the ferry he could see far doorways of light at the end of each tree-line. Now the poplars were still bare with a thousand crosses of twigs spiking into his middle distances.

Thus ends Chapter 1 of my Top 5 Most Inspiring Books (or Collected Works) I Saved From Rat Consumption This Weekend. I had intended to knock out all 5 in one hit but this has proven far more verbose than I had anticipated, and you probably have better things to do by now. Stay tuned for Chapter 2 which includes one of my favourite essays of all time, Orwell’s ‘The Sporting Spirit’, and my prized first edition of John Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), an object which tells a far richer story than simply the text within.

2011: the year that almost wasn’t

December 31, 2011

I am a woman of many words. But words are beginning to fail me as we approach that most arbitrary, hopeful and hollow promise of new beginnings, the hour when one year becomes another. Each of the past 364 days has dealt me struggles both large and small. I believe I am equally blessed and cursed with a mind that experiences the world more keenly than most, and one that both readily and randomly casts shadows where there should be light.

When light penetrates though, it is bright. I have been blessed with the love of my family and many friends this year, both new and old. Some of them saved my life. All of them made my life worth living. It pains me to reflect too much on the year that almost wasn’t as I begin to look forward, with real hope emerging from a darkness that I once thought interminable. Though my mind and my words tell a story of darkness, my pictures tell a story of bright light. The evidence is there, it’s incontrovertible. The camera is tricky, but it does not lie. This is how I wish to remember 2011.

Small sightseers, big river

Year of the flood

Completely wet with liquid light, Satiate, Bangalow

Heartstrings

Tribute

Speed skaters

Clash of the tartans, Yamba

Heavy metal drummer

Under the overpass

28th birthday treat

Nice stems

Curryfest princess, Woolgoolga

Colour and motion, Curryfest, Woolgoolga

Brooms Bowlo

Susan Island, Clarence River

Log chop, Glenreagh

Chicken terrine, orange and fennel flatbread, bread and butter pickles & onion marmalade (or the best meal I've ever made)

Middle Earth, Chatsworth Island

New David, New Italy

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene... (New Italy)

John Arkan, Gate to Plate, Grafton Showground

Farmer's daughter, Grafton farmers' market

Liestal, by the seaside

Little wing

Bird feeding, Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary

The old man and the sea

Grommets

Dangerous waters

Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup

Tiny dancer

Greek goddess

Family Christmas

Fasterchef

August 7, 2011

Every year, at about this time, friends and acquaintances begin encouraging me to apply for Masterchef Australia. Aside from the fact that this is largely due to a kind and flattering overestimation of my culinary skills, it is also due to an overestimation of the show’s aims. Masterchef does not seek to uncover Australia’s best amateur cook (though it has revealed many wonderful cooks over its three years of production); it seeks to uncover Australia’s best, fastest and most entertaining amateur cook. I can cook. I can also be entertaining (though not always on demand). But the baffling speed and agility required would certainly be my downfall.

Never was this more evident than this week, when I planned a picnic with my new friend Ana the Greek, a local journalist, food writer and extraordinary home cook. Our get-togethers are an excuse for foodie indulgence; to try recipes we’ve never tried before, and savour fine ingredients. We decided to split the cooking along sweet and savoury lines. Much to my relief Ana chose dessert (an excuse to use some of her recently acquired supply of Valrhona chocolate). That left me to ponder savoury options. I joked that I would prepare the Maggie Beer ‘chook and pork terrine’ wrapped in chicken skin that had sent all four remaining Masterchef contestants into elimination the night before. She joked that she would be disappointed if I didn’t.

Epic fail

Jokes aside, I browsed cookbooks and recipes online, but I couldn’t get past the idea of a terrine, the perfect picnic food, a compact and easily transportable explosion of flavour, texture and protein. Not only this, I couldn’t get past the idea of that terrine, with its abundance of herbs and citrus flavours and mouth-watering combination of fresh and cured meats. I decided that I would do it. My debut terrine would be the one that brought Masterchef’s top four competitors down. While they only had 2 hours and 15 minutes to prepare the terrine and fixins’ however, I would give myself the whole night. Surely it couldn’t take any longer than that?

Maggie Beer’s Chook and Pork Terrine

½ cup Raisins
¼ cup Verjuice
1 x 1.85kg Free range chicken
525g ‘Black Pig’ pork belly, skinless with a good amount of fat
120g ‘Black Pig’ belly bacon, rindless
120g Free range chicken livers, connective tissue removed
Zest of 2 Lemons
Zest of 1 Orange
2 tablespoons Lemon thyme, stripped and chopped
3 tablespoons Flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons Rosemary, roughly chopped
100g Fresh walnut bread, crumbed
16g Sea salt
2 teaspoons Freshly ground white pepper
3 Bay leaves

Preheat a fan forced oven to 200°C.

Place the raisins and verjuice into a small saucepan and place over a medium heat. Once the verjuice has come to simmering point, remove from the heat, place a lid on top of the saucepan and set aside, allowing the raisins to steep and plump up.

To bone out the chicken, remove the wings at the middle joint, then cut all the way down the back bone so that the chicken is now butterflied out.
Remove the back bone and rib cage, then continue your knife down to remove and cut away the breast and wish bone.

Chop the knuckles from the legs, then bone out each of the legs removing as many of the tendons as possible. Feel for any bones or gristle that may be have missed and cut these out.

Carefully remove all the meat from the skin, taking care not to pierce the skin. Dice the chicken breast into approximately 2cm cubes, place into a mixing bowl and set aside.

Dice the chicken thigh and leg meat and pork belly into approx 1 cm pieces and place into another mixing bowl. Cut the belly bacon into small strips and add this to the chicken and pork mix along with the livers, mix these together well and then place into a food processor and blend for 2 minutes to create a farce, remove from the food processor and place back into the mixing bowl. Add the lemon and orange zest, thyme, parsley, rosemary, walnut bread crumbs, the verjuice steeping liquid from the raisins, sea salt and freshly ground white pepper, mix together well and set aside.

Grease a 1 litre terrine and then place the 3 bay leaves on the base of the mould then line the mould with the skin from the chicken, place 1/3 of the farce on the base then ½ half of the chicken breast and ½ of the raisins, then another 1/3 of the farce then the remaining amount of chicken breast and raisins then top off with the remaining amount of the farce (press gently down to pack in tight). Retain any left over farce in fridge.

Now fold in both ends of the chicken skin, then fold over the two sides to create a neat looking parcel.
Place sheet of baking paper on top of the terrine then cover with foil and seal well.

Place a cloth into the base of a hot water bath, place the terrine into the water bath and put into the preheated oven and cook for 1 hour to 1 hour and 30 minutes (this time will depend on your oven and the temperature of the chicken meat) or until the internal temperature has reached 57°C, remove from the oven and allow the terrine to rest in the water bath for 15 minutes until the internal temperature has reached 65°C. The magic temperature is 65-66°C finished internal temperature.

Pour off any juices from the terrine and place into fridge to chill with a weight on top.

DAY 1

So, I had decided to embark on my very own “Masterchef journey”. My first challenge, unfortunately not having ready access to the Masterchef pantry, was to source the ingredients, some of which proved to be exotic by Grafton standards (Me – “Do you have any chicken livers?” Butcher – “Nuh.”; Bi-lo checkout-chick – “What’s this?” Me – “…a cucumber”).

I then went about prepping the ingredients for the terrine. As any good Masterchef knows, mis en place is the key to kitchen success. Prepping, prepping, and more prepping. Chopping, grating, whizzing, greasing, creating the variety of different textures in the dish. I’m not going to lie to you, this process took me over an hour . By this stage, I pretty much would have been eliminated. Which led to an important realisation: the contestants on Masterchef didn’t prep their ingredients. They can’t have. I mean, I’m no Cadel Evans, but I have zested one or two lemons in my time, and preparing everything and getting the terrine in the oven within half an hour as expected of the contestants, would have been UNPOSSIBLE! Not to worry, chefs have apprentices to do all that stuff anyhow.

The most challenging element, sorry ‘alamant’, of the preparation was the deboning and de-skinning of the chicken, something that is somewhat challenging if you’ve never done it before. It was this “pressure point” that became the make or break element of the dish on Masterchef – would they be able to do it in the 3.2 minutes provided? Would the skin have any holes in it? (Well yes, actually, because a chicken has wings and legs.) Honestly, it isn’t that hard to debone and skin a chicken. Anyone with a working knowledge of the anatomy of a chicken and a sharp knife could do it. It just takes a long time if you’ve never done it before, which is fairly reasonable considering how rarely you see the words ‘1 chicken, skin only’ in recipes. Also, it’s kind of gross (warning to those who are squeamish abut handling meat). Happily for me, time was on my side.

Once everything had been prepped, it was a breeze of assembling the dish. Aside from worrying that my chicken skin wouldn’t be big enough to encase all of the mixture, it was a doddle. It’s really just putting stuff in a tin and then other stuff on top of that stuff. Soon enough I was able to pop it in the oven. Time check. Including the time I spent washing up and cleaning down as I went, periodically checking Facebook and watching the Sopranos (appropriate viewing while dismembering a chicken), it took me about 4 hours from scratch to oven. OK, so by this time I’m a massive loser, but it’s worth noting that I do possess one of the other desirable Masterchef attributes: I am a perfectionist control freak. So yeah, it took me a while.

I cooked the terrine until the internal thermometer said stop, then I rested it until the thermometer said stop again, aware that this was the point where Michael, Dani, Kate and Alana met their downfall, the glistening skins of their terrines concealing the worst of culinary sins – pink chicken meat. It’s tempting to cut into the terrine to check whether it is cooked at this point, but you can’t; instead you have to spend a sleepless night wondering and/or dreaming about it. You see, the next step in the terrine process is refrigeration. This is why I was confused when Matt Preston chastised his contestants for their undercooked meatloaves, asking Gary and George whether they would have sent that out at their restaurants. Well, n0, but no self-respecting chef would have cooked a terrine to order you ninny, they would have cooked it that morning, or preferably two days ago. And if it was undercooked, they wouldn’t have taken it out of the oven because of some arbitrary time limit. DER!

At this point, you’re probably thinking, but what about all the fixins? Well, you’re right. Frankly, there’s so much cleaning up to do, one doesn’t really have time for fixins’. And so they would wait ’til the morrow. And with that, I went to bed, 6 hours after this journey had begun.

DAY 2

I awoke early, after little sleep, on the day of the picnic. There was much to do! First was the walnut flatbread. Reading the recipe, I thought good, this will be a cinch, because compared to the complexity of the terrine it read like cooking two-minute noodles. Needless to say, it wasn’t quite that simple. And yet, for this novice breadmaker, it was simple enough. Within an hour or so, I was pulling beautifully golden ovals out of the oven, dusted with salt and fennel seeds. The flavour was a revelation. The bread may even have been the highlight of the completed dish. Success!

I also whipped up a batch of bread and butter pickles, a la Maggie Beer. To be honest, I was disappointed with their flavour, which didn’t have the sweet/sour punch I like in a pickle. But I would be putting it up on the plate, and that’s the most important thing!

With just a couple of hours until our picnic, the moment of truth: the time had come to turn out the terrine and slice it. SUCCESS! I couldn’t believe how perfect it looked, shining on the wooden board like a jewel-encrusted pate. Tasting, it was incredibly dense, salty and texturally diverse, with hints of thyme, rosemary and bay. I had done it! I could hardly believe that everything had come together. With a total preparation and cooking time of 9 hours, I had long ago lost the challenge, but I had learned much about the magic of television. In the end, I’d rather take my sweet time and savour the process of cooking, not to mention eating. And so the journey continued…

Terrine and fixins'

Nice slice

The picnic table, Strontian Park, Great Marlow

Lunch

Invention test: Ana's chocolate torte with strawberries and cream, strawberry pop rocks, tuile

Timberrrrrrrrrr!

August 2, 2011

Sadly my creative juices haven’t been flowing lately; at least, I think I have been expending them on resurrecting my musical talent instead of arranging words in a pleasing fashion. Though I also haven’t had the camera out much lately, I did manage to take some photographs of an exciting excursion at the weekend: the 7th Annual Glenreagh Timber Festival!

Glenreagh is currently known as that town near where Russell Crowe lives sometimes, and is soon to be known as that town with the giant statue of a dog, that may be part dog, part kangaroo (no pictures, sorry). I was invited to check out the action by my wonderful friends Mrs and Mrs Leicester and their family, and we spent a lovely afternoon picnicking in the sun and watching large men wield axes with our new friends the Friendly Timbermillers.

The sport of woodchopping is a lot more structured and elaborate than I expected. It’s not just a bunch of blokes hacking into lumps of wood. There are rules. I don’t know what they are, but they seemed to be very complicated. The whole thing reminded me of a Freemason-style secret society, complete with handshake and a uniform of singlets, white pants and white dunlop volleys. OK, I made up the handshake bit, but it could be true. I did not make up the Dunlop Volleys. These were ubiquitous. I wonder if they were steel caps.

Apart from the dazzling array of champion axe-men, there were sheep dog trials, pony rides and a humungous jumping castle which was very popular with the four-year-old. Here are some of the highlights of my day.

Fancy looking sheep

Working puppy

The entertainment

Floss fairy

Loads of logs

The axeman

Fence post splitting in under 5 minutes

Late in the day

Specialty footwear

Endless summer

June 19, 2011

We all like to think of winter as a time to indulge in comfort food: boldly flavoured slow braises; soups, stews and ragouts; pies with flaky pastry and fall-apart fillings; Sunday roasts. In my part of the world however, the truth is that we don’t really experience winter, at least in the extreme way we experience summer, and that is reflected in the produce that grows in our climate. Though of course the shorter days and chill in the air pique the appetite for the classic foods of winter, we need not subsist on lamb shanks and turnips alone.

Reflecting the mildness of our winter, our garden is currently full of heirloom tomatos planted at the end of the warm season. I didn’t expect them to thrive, and although they have been slow growing compared to the summer crop, they are prolific to the point that we’re eating them nearly every day.

I was a latecomer to the lure of Pomodoro in their virgin form, previously preferring the shit to be cooked out of them before ingestion. No doubt this was due to the hard, floury, insipid specimens that populated supermarket shelves when I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s. The fruity half of the old iceberg lettuce and tomato salad was to be avoided, and literally made me gag. I started coming around when premium ‘vine-ripened’ fruit began to appear in supermarkets.

A delightful revelation took place however when I tried my first organic heirloom tomatoes from The Farm Gate by Nashdale Fruit Co and realised what a tomato is supposed to taste like! These were fruit that I actually wanted to eat unadorned and uncooked. Since then I have embraced the increasing availability of heirloom varieties, recently making friends with a tomato specialist at the local farmers market who helps me select the best fruit.

Most of my fresh tomatoes come out of the garden though and we’re always looking for new ways to prepare them. We had a particularly large harvest last week, and I decided that I wanted to make the tomatoes the star of the meal. As always when I am contemplating a vegetarian recipe I consulted that expansive cookbook, google, to find out what Yotam Ottolenghi, chef, Guardian columnist and author of Plenty, had to say on the matter. This recipe for a (lively, summery) tomato ‘galette’ was just the ticket: it would take advantage of the range of beautiful tomatoes in different hues, and I already had all of the ingredients in the garden/larder. I haven’t cooked with sundried tomatoes much since the 90s, but in this context they provide a great punch of concentrated tomato flavour. You could also substitute pesto or tapenade. I also included some glorious anchovies, which beautifully complement the tomatoes and provide an extra salty hit.

Herbage

Yotam Ottolenghi’s tomato galette

375g all-butter puff pastry

8 stalks fresh oregano, leaves picked and roughly chopped

100g goats’ cheese, crumbled (I used some beautiful Meredith cheese)

450g red, yellow or green tomatoes of various sizes, sliced 2mm thick

8 stalks fresh thyme

8 anchovies (optional)

Olive oil

For the sundried tomato paste

10 sun-dried tomatoes from a jar

2 anchovies (optional)

1 fresh red chilli, sliced

2 garlic cloves

½ tsp sugar

1 tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 200c. Roll out the pastry to 3mm thick and cut out four rectangles about 10cm x 15cm. Transfer the pastry rectangles to a large baking sheet lined with baking paper and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

To make the sun-dried tomato paste, put all the ingredients in the small bowl of a food processor and process to a rough paste; if necessary, add a bit of oil to bring it together.

Spread a thin layer of the tomato paste over the chilled pastry, leaving a border about 1cm from the edge. Sprinkle with the oregano and goats’ cheese, and arrange the tomatoes on top, slightly overlapping but not too precisely. Make sure the tomato paste is covered by fresh tomatoes because it tends to burn. Place two anchovy fillets on the top of each tart. Drop the thyme stalks over the tomatoes and drizzle with a little olive oil.

Bake for 15 minutes, until golden on top; check the base to make sure the pastry is brown and fully cooked. Remove from the oven and leave to cool before drizzling over more olive oil and serving warm.

The tart was brilliant, full of flavour and light but satisfying. I served it with a simple salad I knocked up with some roasted beetroot, blanched sugar snap peas and (more) Meredith goats’ cheese. Colourful and flavourful food to brighten up a winter’s day.

My kind of salad

Life.

June 4, 2011

Hello strangers, it has been a long time since our last encounter. The past months have seen me return to work after a long period of rest and recalibration. I am still privileged to be a part of the amazing Dictionary of Sydney team thanks to the magic of the interwebs. I was also recently thrilled to be asked to join the team at local creative hub Yoohoo Web & Graphic Design, where I am writing, editing and collaborating on design projects. I have also just taken on a new role managing publicity and promotions for the local Clarence Valley Business Excellence Awards. I feel like I’m back in my element doing what I do best: communicating and connecting.

Essentially, I am working towards making writing, and writing-related activities, my profession. To this end, I am constantly seeking projects in different media, and today I proudly made the leap from the letters page to the lifestyle section, with my first story published in the Daily Examiner, our excellent local rag. My experience researching this story was an example of the great privilege that comes with being a writer; the opportunity to meet a quietly extraordinary person and capture their life in words. A life that puts your own in perspective. For those of you who aren’t locals, I’ve reproduced the article below.

True survivor did it all on his Pat Malone

By Felicity Watson (Daily Examiner, 4 June 2011)
 

Pat Bancroft is a quiet and unassuming man who has lived an extraordinary life. At 90 years of age, he is nearly three decades older than the average life expectancy of Aboriginal men. He began his working life aged 10 and has survived war, economic depression and the dangerous toil of years of gold and asbestos mining. And yet, he continues to live and work on the land as he always has.

Born in 1920 to Arthur Bancroft and his second wife, Aboriginal woman Annie Tindal, Pat grew up in the small goldmining town of Lionsville. Before the Great War, Arthur had some lucrative interests including Mount Arthur and the Mountain Maid, which yielded over 500 ounces of gold (worth more than $500,000 in today’s prices). By 1920 however, the once bustling towns of Lionsville and Solferino were languishing, the mining boom a distant memory. 

On the Banks of the Washpool, 2009, by Bronwyn Bancroft. Pat, left, poses with his brother Bill, the artist's father, c1925. (Courtesy of Bronwyn Bancroft and Wilson Street Gallery)

By the time ten-year-old Pat began to work for his father, Australia was gripped by the Great Depression. ‘There wasn’t much in the depression days, in the 30s, you’d go and do whatever you could. Trap rabbits in the winter, cut girders,’ says Pat.

Despite this hardship, Arthur had faith, and his luck came in when he struck a 60 ounce nugget in 1935, a rare find which made news around the country.

Pat soon learned to make the tools of his trade. ‘We used to call it a whip but it was pretty rough,’ he says of his first whip, made at age ten. The packhorses needed to be shod if they were to transport ore along the steep mountain tracks each day, and Pat became a fine blacksmith.

He was a keen sportsman, one of the founding members of the Lionsville cricket team. Formed in 1937, the team had a few successful seasons, but everything changed after the outbreak of World War II.

Pat left the Clarence Valley for the first time when he enlisted in 1941, joining the 2/4th Australian Pioneer Battalion along with many others from the North Coast. They travelled north and worked on defensive positions between Adelaide River and Darwin.
On 14 February 1942 the battalion sailed for Timor, but came under attack from Japanese bombers and was forced to retreat. Later camped out by the Darwin airstrip, ‘these planes came over, we’d seen them a couple of days before’.

The bombs fell on 19 February, sinking the ship that had brought them back to Darwin just the previous day. After surveying the damage, the 2/4th started digging defences past the airstrip, working through the night. Amid the chaos and fear, ‘all you could do was go and do something,’ remembers Pat.

After another 13 months defending Darwin, the 2/4th traveled to the Atherton Tablelands for jungle training before travelling to Morotai and Labuan, off the coast of Borneo. It was while they were here that ‘[the Americans] dropped the bomb and the peace was signed’.

The war had changed everything, including life on the home front. ‘It was easier to get on after the war, there was plenty going on, y’know. [In the] 1930s, for ten years it was hard going for everybody,’ he says.

Lionsville, 1940Upon his return to Lionsville, Pat found work fencing, droving and at the Baryugil asbestos mine. He purchased his first property, with 700 head of cattle, in 1950. He also 'played a lot of good cricket'.

Over the decades, Pat has rarely missed a cattle sale, rodeo or camp draft. His life on the land continues. While he now lives in Southgate, he visits Lionsville regularly to work on his old property, since passed on to his niece, acclaimed artist Bronwyn Bancroft.

Through his family, Pat has fostered a new generation of custodians. Much of Bronwyn’s art is inspired by the country around Lionsville and her family’s history. She describes her work as ‘about respecting and reinforcing the hard work that members of my family put in, both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal’.

Pat continues to make his now famous stock whips. Objects of beauty and practicality, they speak not only of his skill, but of his life and the land he loves. He cures and cuts out the leather by hand, then binds it to a handle of hand-carved water gum from Lionsville. The same wood his Pop used, light and strong.

Pat's now famous stock whips are objects of beauty and practicality. (Photo: Felicity Watson)

Crafternoon tea

January 30, 2011

One of the most special friends I have made since retiring to the Clarence Valley is the lovely Lola. Passing acquaintances during the latter days of our school years, we met once again by chance, and have since realised that there are many things we share in common such as a quirky sense of style and humour, an interest in art, design and photography, and a necessity to create in order to survive, and thrive. Her talents are dazzling in their breadth, from photography to dyeing and spinning yarn.

This weekend she invited me to her house for a crafternoon to make Valentines with her daughter Little L and son JD. Since I was unable to bring many useful skills, I decided to bring delicious cakes instead!

I had a couple of punnets of blueberries from my friend Paul the Barefoot Farmer, which I thought would be just the thing. The nearby town of Corindi is known for its excellent blueberries, and you may have seen them in greengrocers this summer. Paul’s property is located on the Orara River, and his berries are the finest I have ever encountered. Picked much smaller than the mealy, bloated fruit you usually find in the supermaket, his blueberries are an old variety which are piquant and juicy.

I found a recipe in a new addition to our library, The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook, a gift to my mother from Brother Explody. An ‘American-style’ bakery in London, the Hummingbird Bakery lies towards the the frou-frou end of the cake spectrum. There’s a glowing endorsement from Gwyneth Paltrow on the cover and, indeed, some of the cakes within its pages are reminiscent of her 1999 Oscars dress. Nevertheless, the recipes don’t only have style, but substance too. With tea, cakes and Lola’s incredible crafty resources, a wonderful crafternoon was had by all, even if some of us (ok, me) weren’t exceptionally productive. Multiple packets of googly eyes proved to be somewhat of a distraction.

As endorsed by Gwyneth Paltrow

You call that a blueberry?


Blueberry Muffins, recipe from the Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook

360g plain flour
370g caster sugar
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
375ml buttermilk
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
70g unsalted butter, melted
250g blueberries

Preheat the oven to 170 degrees. Sift the dry ingredients into the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat on slow speed. Put the buttermilk, egg and vanilla extract into a jug and mix to combine. Slowly pour into the flour mixture and beat until all the ingredients are incorporated.

Pour in melted butter and beat until the butter has just been incorporated, then increase to medium speed and beat until the dough is even and smooth. Finally, gently fold in the blueberries with a wooden spoon until evenly dispersed.

Spoon the mixture into paper cases (I used rigid cases, but you could used a greased muffin tin, or muffin tin lined with paper cases). Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until golden brown and the sponge bounces back when touched. A skewer inserted in the centre should come out clean. Cool on wire rack.

Let them eat cake!

Crafternoon tea

JD's first bite

Lola loves

Felix's Boardwalk Empire-inspired piece, with Little L's Many-eyed Monster in the background...

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