Upping Your Cheese Game

Cheese, cheese, glorious cheese. Sure, it’s a convenient way to preserve milk but it is so much more. It deserves to be celebrated, given its own basic food group and have societies dedicated to worshipping its glories. In fact, there is a local First Tuesday Cheese Club I’ve been trying to get an invitation to for a few years. With cheese’s worthy credentials established, it’s time to lay down some guidelines for improving your cheese game.

Cheese basics

The invention, or more likely discovery, of cheese will always remain in contention but it is highly probable that simple, fresh cheeses were the first man ever consumed. Milk stored in a bag made from the stomach of an animal would have separated and firmed up due to the natural rennin in the skin and the movement from transportation. There are as many cheeses in the world as there are names for pasta (this may or may not be statistically true) and they can be roughly divided into six categories.

1. Fresh cheeses: these are the basic building blocks of cheese making. Only a few steps away from milk, they rely on a good quality fresh milk product as their base and are best consumed within a few days of purchase. Examples – Mozzarella Di Bufala from Italy, Woodside Goat Curd from South Australia

2. Surface ripened: this style of cheese ripens from the outside in, thanks to the mould filaments that penetrate inwards breaking down the texture until it reaches a creamy point of perfection. Examples – Brie de Nangis from France, Holy Goat La Luna from Victoria

3. Washed rind: dependent upon a particular strain of bacteria (B.linens) for their distinctive terracotta colour and unique aroma, washed rind cheeses are often smell stronger than they taste. Flavour variations multiply when you consider these cheeses are then washed regularly with brine solutions, alcohol, and even herbs and spices. Examples – Mauri Taleggio from Italy, L’Artisan Mountain Man from Victoria

4. Semi-hard: curds are scalded and pressed to produce a cheese with a low moisture content. The magic of this popular style of cheese comes as the cheese develops flavour and changes texture over months of maturation. Examples – Geitenkaas from Holland, Heidi Raclette from Tasmania

5. Hard: curd is cooked at higher temperatures then pressed and matured over extended periods to develop both taste and texture. Examples – Parmigiano Reggiano from Italy, Pyengana Cheddar from Tasmania

6. Blue: ripening from the inside out, these cheeses are inoculated with a blue-mould culture, then spiked to allow air to activate and feed the microbes, creating the spidery webs of mould that are so distinctive and give them their name. Examples – Stilton from the UK, Tarwin Blue from Victoria.

So what makes each cheese taste different to the next one?

Everything. One cheese from the same manufacturer will vary in taste over the course of a year as the animal’s feed also differs – new grass in spring with the odd herb or wildflower consumed will produce different flavours in the milk compared to winter feeds such as hay and silage.

Cheese, particularly cheese made from unpasteurised milk, reflects its terroir, which refers to soil, season, pasture and more. At every step of the cheese-making process from milk, through addition of starters, heating/cooking, draining, pressing and salting to the maturation of the product allows for variation of flavour.

What do I need to know about buying cheese?

Finding a cheesemonger you like and trust is a great first step in buying good cheese. Someone who is willing to share their knowledge and to push you further than you may have thought you wanted to go makes for a great cheesemonger. Don’t be afraid to ask questions as a skilled professional/curd nerd will revel in the opportunity to take you over to the dark side of cheese life.

Well-labelled products will give a good foundation of knowledge – who makes the cheese, where it is made, what type of milk it is made from and how aged it is.

The best time to buy your cheese is as close as possible to the time that you wish to consume it.

What do I need to know about storing cheese?

The best way to store cheese is in the paper it is wrapped in, assuming you’ve bought from a reputable providore. If you need it for a few occasions, ask for a few extra pieces. Don’t plastic wrap it to within an inch of its life. Cheese is alive and needs to breathe. Standard domestic fridges are too cold and too dry. One of the best places to actually store your treasured product is in the vegetable compartment, as it is slightly warmer and more humid than the rest of the fridge. Eat your fresh cheeses first. Harder, cooked cheeses will last longer. Washed rinds can have a pungent smell so be mindful of buying these too early.

What do I need to know about serving cheese?

Ambient temperature is one key point to consider when serving cheese. A hot summer’s day requires different considerations to a cooler environment. Most cheeses can take time out of the fridge, and in fact often benefit, but one to watch is blue cheese. In the heat, blue cheese can develop overly spicy flavours. Love your Roquefort, but keep it cool.

Variety of flavour and texture is important when designing your cheese platter, but don’t over complicate things. Sometimes one big statement cheese is the answer. A whole Camembert, perfectly ripe and unctuous, is a better idea than three meagre portions of a soft, a hard and a blue cheese. Allowing 50-60 grams of cheese per person per cheese is a good guide. Unless, of course, it happens to be a Friday which means cheese is obviously the main meal.

What are you serving with your cheese?

When looking at accompaniments, it’s important to know that there’s more available than just quince paste. Fresh seasonal fruit such as pears and apples, dried fruit pieces and even chutneys and pickles work well with a variety of cheese. Whatever you choose, it should add to, not distract from, the cheese. Mix up the carbohydrates – think oat crackers, water crackers, lavosh as well as bread, be it rye, white or fruit.

What are you planning on drinking with your cheese?

Rarely is the answer red wine with its problematic tannins. Belgian saison beers love an earthy washed rind. Fresh goat cheeses benefit from an off-dry Riesling, hard cooked Comte loves Marsanne, Roquefort and Sauternes are a well recognised match, and farmhouse cider with Camembert de Normandie are regionally taste-matched buddies.

So go forth and buy cheese with confidence. And if you need a hand eating it, I’m just an email away.

Seattle, WA – Monday 29th August  2016

Seattle, WA – Monday 29th August

Minimal cloud and a glorious mid 20s Celsius has got to be the perfect weather for visiting a city. The buildings look that little bit shinier in the sun, and it’s easier to walk a city without working up a sweat. This morning we join a market experience walking tour. Just before the tour starts at 9.30am we sneak into a joint called Piroshky Piroshky Bakery. Unsurprisingly we order a couple of piroshky. These are hot pastries filled with all manner of meat or vegetables and even sweet fillings. I choose the sauerkraut, cabbage and onion while Steve chooses the beef and cheese. Still warm from the oven, these take the edge of our hunger while we wait for Jake and his waving flag.

With a ‘pay as you feel’ policy, these walking tours could be a real hit or miss from an operating point of view but Jake has the personality to make it work. Knowledgeable and incredibly personable, he is a great touch point for visitors to Seattle. Green and white flag turning to and fro, Seattle Free Walking Tours, Jake draws a range of people hovering awkwardly at the meeting spot. Also in the park by Pike Place Market’s north entrance is a group protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Under the guard of two tall totem poles, a group of Native Americans with bullhorns in hand, are addressing a small crowd that has gathered. Between the accent and the distortion, I’m having trouble understanding what is being said. Large banners give some context. NO PIPELINE, NODAPL, WATER PROTECTORS, RED WARRIOR, KEEP IT IN THE GROUND, WATER IS LIFE, I STAND WITH STANDING ROCK. 

Reaching into a small grey backpack, a clipboard is produced. Smiling and chatting, he repeats our names as he checks us off his list. 

‘Hi there. You here for the walking tour?’ His eyes light up as they connect with mine.

Implicitly I volunteer, ‘I’m Amanda. This is Steve.’

‘Amanda and Steve? Steve and Amanda. I’m Jake. Where you guys from?’

‘Australia.’

‘Oh yeah, where in Australia?’ he asks sounding genuinely curious.

‘Melbourne,’ Steve answers rather ironically as he was born in England and lived in Western Australia for 13 years.

‘Mel-born?’

‘No, Mel-bun,’ I correct him.

‘Mell-bunnn’ he repeats confidently. ‘My wife and I were there a few years back. BC, before children. Great city. Fabulous food from memory.’

From this accurate concise comment he turns to face the couple who’ve appeared at our left with the same appealing smile. Steve and I stand abandoned not knowing what to do next. A few moments later we step aside, look around the park and at our feet.  

‘So what’s the plan after this?’ I ask knowing his almighty spreadsheet holds many possibilities.  

‘I don’t know. What do you feel like?

How can I know what I will feel like in a couple of hours? I’m not really sure what I feel like now. There’s a a freedom in not being responsible for planning a holiday. Steve has added every attraction he’s even slightly curious in visiting as a gold star on his google maps. Those attractions that are more insistent have made it as an entry on the daily spreadsheet. To have a question thrown at me as to what I want to do is at once an opportunity and a pressure.

‘Well, I’m still hungry so if we don’t pick up anything on the tour, how about we go for second breakfast,’ I venture. 

From his pocket in an instant appears his phone. I don’t have an American SIM card for my phone so I’m reliant upon free wifi and it appears we are just outside the market’s range.

‘Just around the corner is Biscuit Bitch,’ he says enthusiastically. ‘It’s supposed to be one of the best biscuit places in America. Real southern style biscuits even though we are in the Pacific Northwest.’

I’m simultaneously impressed and not surprised that he has this information so readily available.

‘Sure.’

I’m happy to be lead to new places and even happier not to have spent the hours researching it.

Slowly more people are gathering around are tour leader. Rainproof jackets on, cameras slung around necks, day packs on back and phones in hand. Seattle feels as though it could rain or burst into sunshine at any moment. From this elevated position, we look past the working port, over the Puget Sound to a snow-covered Mt. Rainier in the distance. Seattle rises sharply from the waterline of Puget Sound. Even though city planners tried to tame its hills early on, the incline of some streets challenges visitors and no doubt keeps local brake companies in business. As in San Francisco, some streets require cars park with wheels turned into the curb.

‘Welcome everyone from around the States and around the world,’ Jake says in a raised projected voice . ‘Let’s move a little closer to the market entrance so you can all hear me better.’ Dutifully we follow our leader. The protestor’s speech fades as we cross the chaotic intersection and try to avoid the shoppers emerging from the market. A short explanation later, Jake leads us down into the multilevel labyrinth that is Pike Place Market. Like markets all over the world, a loose organisation of stalls exist based on type and historic precedence. No matter how we try, it’s hard not to be in the way of the genuine market shoppers. 

One of our fist stops on the tour is a fish stall that is renowned for fish tossing Wild Atlantic salmon. Originally as a gimmick, these hefty beauties are tossed gracefully over the counter to the shrieks of delight from tourists. Clad in rubber orange overalls and gumboots repeatedly shouting orders to each other, the fishmongers occasionally lob a fake fish into the gathering audience. Underneath a sign that reads Caution – Low flying fish on thick beds of ice lay mounds of Halibut, King Salmon, Wild Alaskan Coho Salmon, jumbo Gulf prawns, Black Cod, oysters, mussels, squid, Dungeness crab and King Crab legs bigger than my arm. Amongst the rows of own brand condiments stands their recipe book – In the Kitchen with the Pike Place Fish Guys – 100 recipes and tips from the world famous crew of Pike Place Fish. Happy to stand near the back avoiding audience participation, as the group moves on I linger running my eyes over new species of fish creating a seafood banquet in my head.

By the time I’ve crossed the street and caught up with the rest of the group at a stall in the greengrocers section, I’m just in time for a slice of new season apple that tastes of lemonade. Dark purple grapes, yellow/green round grapes that taste like cotton candy, stone fruit bigger than my fist, berries, figs, tropical fruit, bags of rainbow of new potatoes and garlands of chillies and garlic drying overhead.

We avoid the growing line outside the original Starbucks location, as people who should know better queue for a coffee that surely tastes just as average as the ones from the cafes that surround it. I can’t even bring myself to take a photo of it. Not incidentally, I experienced a perverse joy in the initial failure of Starbucks to gain a foothold in Australia. Coffee culture had anchored itself in Australia with the European post-war immigration wave. Espresso machines soon began to make their way into Australian cafes and restaurants. We buy coffee from our local independent café, not an international corporation. If you don’t like the flavour profile of the bean at your local café, you can walk the next block over. Like McDonalds, Starbucks success was based upon a predictable formula regardless of geographical location.

America is an incredibly patriotic nation, occasionally prone to global blindness.
The globalisation of American culture from hip-hop music to clothing, food and drink worlds are no different. Tex-mex tacos are easily found on every food truck corner of Australia’s major cities. Shopping centres host chain stores familiar to US citizens as the muzak playing over the public sound system. It may understandable that when Americans travel they get confused where America ends and other countries begin. 

Before leaving the market we sneak in a couple of mini maple and bacon donuts, hot from the fryer at Daily Dozen Doughnut Company but it’s not enough to assuage our hunger so it’s up the hill we climb towards Biscuit Bitch. Rounding the corner, I think I’ve spied the place while Steve has paused to check the location.

‘It should be just up here on the right,’ he says without looking up.

‘Where that massive queue is then,’ I say pointing ahead.

Head up, ‘Ah,yep. That’d be it.’

He walks closer for a better look and I move to the edge of the footpath. It is mid-morning so really it’s no surprise that the joint is pumping. It’s a small store and the queue hosts twice as many people as there are customers inside.

‘I did see a biscuit place inside the market when I went to the bathroom if you want to try that place,’ I offer.

‘What’s it called?’ he asks phone in hand still.

‘I don’t know. Let’s just go.’ I turn go back the way we came, Steve trailing behind trying to look up our new destination online.

Turns out Honest Biscuits, in a quiet corner of the bustling market, produce a very decent Dungeness crab and cheddar biscuit sandwich. Teamed with an IPA from Pike Brewing IPA, our hunger and mission for good biscuits were satisfied in one hit. A crunchy outside and fluffy middle, the biscuit sandwich has chucks of local crab meat under melted slabs of cheddar from Beecher’s cheese stall also in the market. Sprinkle of spring onion on top and happy days are here. We perch on bar stools overlooking the atrium to enjoy a few moments resting the feet and enjoying the relative quiet.

Peace is a thing that can be hard to find when travelling. By its very nature, travelling usually involves close contact with other people. I’m an urban traveller not a wilderness traveller. I enjoy the bustle of cities and the excitement of their hectic environment. Balance must be present though in some quiet moments. I find journal keeping is one of those things helps me find that equilibrium. Art galleries, museums also help. Ideally, I prefer to head out in the mornings and walk the streets finding new places along the way. In the afternoons, I like to retire to my abode for a few quiet hours, reflecting and writing before heading out again for the evening. Of course, travelling with a partner doesn’t always mean things are ideal.

Feeling at risk of overdoing art museums, I suggest to Steve that we skip the Seattle Art Museum and visit the Aquarium instead. I’m glad we do. The Seattle Aquarium is located right on the waterfront, a short walk down a few flights of stairs from the market. The waterfront is a mix of wide board walk, kitschy seafood cafes, buskers, public art installations, ferry terminal and the Seattle Aquarium. Stepping past prams and wayward small children, we pay the admission fee and collect a map. Just inside the entrance is a large foyer with a six metre high cantilevered glass wall onto an enormous tank at one end.

‘This would make an impressive function space,’ I say to no one in particular. Behind the thick glass water surges steadily in and out, mimicking the waves of Puget Sound. Kelp sways, fish dart around the coral and eels poke their heads out from rock crevices.

‘I think we are the only ones here without kids,’ Steve notes. I nod, thankful. Hoards of children are running around and I’m exhausted trying to avoid them underfoot. We head past the interactive exhibits complete with kids tormenting sea cucumbers, the tubular jellyfish tanks, and out back to the where the aquarium and sea waters overlap. There’s a 360 degree underwater concrete and glass dome that juts into the bay. Here we sit for a few minutes, the only visitors listening to the gentle sounds of waves on glass, the odd harbour seal frolicking amongst large kelp forests. Sunlight streams through the clear waters, lending the room an eerie blue-green light. Rockfish, sturgeon and more dart their sleek silvery bodies past the windows.

We make our way along past the outside tanks and find my favourite exhibit – the sea otters. Yes, they swim a repeated loop like so many animals enclosed in zoo exhibits but I find them irresistibly cute. #ottersarethenewcats I banish all concerns about the ethics of zoos and keeping animals in captivity which is one of the reasons I often struggle with aquariums and zoos. Almost seemingly as a reward, we are fortunate enough to witness the otters during a special grown-ups only cuddle time. Quickly we see parents directing the kids’ attention onwards to the next exhibit.

San Francisco, CA – Thursday 18th August

San Francisco, CA – Thursday 18th August

 

2:41 PM

Terminal 1, Departures – Door 10, San Francisco International Airport

MILES 14.45

TRIP TIME 00:28:10

FARE BREAKDOWN Base Fare $2.00

Subtotal $24.82

Booking Fee $1.55

SFO Airport Surcharge $3.80

Total $30.17

Diogenes 4.35 stars

 

A Cadillac Mustang tentatively slows, curb crawling with the driver leaning forward peering out the dusty front window. Smiling and waving, Steve steps forward, phone in hand, to open the front passenger door.

Hi, I’m Steve.

I drag my suitcase from the pavement. As it dumps onto the bitumen, the driver appears by the rear door and heaves both our suitcases into the trunk. They land between slabs of bottled water and a forest-green sports bag that may or may not have a small dead body inside. Over-dressed for the surprisingly warm weather, I peel off my baggy black jacket I have carried with me from Melbourne before jumping in the backseat.

 

I’m still reminiscing over my breakfast – a six-egg white omelette with sautéed kale, guacamole, roasted baby yams and shaved turkey breast. Could it be any more American? Egg white omelettes and turkey breast first came to my attention thanks to a plethora of television sitcoms. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them on a menu in Melbourne. Unfortunately the tea was truly American in style also – tepid dish water. Thankfully, I brought a stash of real tea bags with me from home. These will have to be rationed out over the next month. Americans may start their day with coffee but I’m a cup of tea girl all the way. I’m not pretty without my cup of tea. America and Australia may well have been colonised by Britain, but the tea has an altogether different standing in Australia than in America. I’ve visited the USA three times and rarely have a found a kettle, electric or otherwise, in a hotel room.

 

Steve always sits behind the driver as the English gentleman in him won’t allow me to get in the car on the road side and naturally as a lady I can’t be expected to scoot over. I allow him these indulgences, quieting my inner rabid feminist. From my position in the rear passenger seat I get the perfect observation point on our Uber driver. Burgundy check shorts and a ‘limp from years of washing’ indistinct logo t-shirt. Bob Dylan’s version of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ plays too loudly on the radio.

And so begins our trip up the west coast of America. For the next month, Steve and I travel up the west coast, fly across the top stopping in Chicago before landing in New York then down to New Orleans and back west to San Diego.

 

Eagerly embracing the new disruptive paradigms of Airbnb and Uber, we tasted a previously hidden or hard-to-find version of America. Staying with an American version of my great aunt and uncle in Bend, Oregon and an ageing Mills-and-Boons’-cover-model-turned-bar-owner in New York City, we meet many entertaining people who opened up their cars and homes to us. Uber drivers in exchange for pieces of gold, similarly opened up their private space to strangers from a foreign land. Unable to retreat to a distant room, our Uber host must find their own space within the metal cage.

 

How long you been doing this?

Steve always starts the same way. He doesn’t actually really care how long you’ve been working your car for Uber or been driving that day. It’s a hook to hang the rest of the conversation on. It turns out our driver today is named Diogenes. The app tells us so. Diogenes himself doesn’t actually tell us much at all. The fourteen and a half miles over twenty-eight minutes costs a total of $30.17 which includes a surcharge of $2.00 for pick up at the San Francisco airport. When you submit yourself to a taxi in a foreign country, there is a fair degree of trust involved. Ubers take this one step further. A private company with little external regulation, car sharing is just one part of a new society we are figuring out as we build it.

 

San Francisco, CA – Friday 19th August

 

12:13 PM

395 Hayes St, San Francisco, CA 94102, USA

MILES 1.21

TRIP TIME 00:07:41

FARE BREAKDOWN Trip fare 9.61

Subtotal $9.61

Total $9.61

Driver – Antonio

 

San Francisco may well be my new favourite city. The weather is nicely temperate; there’s a cool breeze off the water which means walking around isn’t over heating us. Steve has a tendency to get sweaty easily which means he’s reluctant to do too much walking. I love walking around a new city as its such a great way to get to know a place at ground level. The slow pace allows me to peek into stores and eaves-dropping is unavoidable. The pavements are dirtier than I’m used to. Lots of chewing gum is stuck to the surface and I feel the need to remove my shoes the moment we step in from outside. It’s summer and I’m wearing sandals so my skin is too close to this filth for my ease.

 

Although this day may be slotted for art viewing, our brewcation is not taking a back seat. After a coffee and bagel earlier, our first stop is Mikkeller bar in a seedy area known as the Tenderloin. Drug deals and sex workers aside, theatres and dive bars sit side by side and I’m sure it all looks shinier when lit by neon at night. With Uber Antonio dropping us right at the bar’s door, it wasn’t long before Steve has an oatmeal coffee stout in hand. I choose a lingonberry-flavoured sour.

 

Soon enough we have a couple of brews under our belt and it is only a few blocks’ walk to the art. As a visual artist, the art museum in every town we visit is usually on my list. San Francisco is no different. Steve is trained for this by now. I think he secretly appreciates a respite from the heat and sun as well as a chance to sit where he can. Before we even get to step inside a gallery, we come across two people perched on makeshift stools at a fold-out table offering poems for sale.

 

I can’t resist. After a short conversation, Devon starts tapping away at his vintage typewriter to produce a bespoke poem for Steve and I.

 

There’s winter left

so so have we, we’ve

traversed meridians, both in our minds and globally, taken to

the air, decided to discover

ourselves through

the new lense(sic) of a new street or two

From Winter Left by Devon Kingsford  August 2016

 

Ten US dollars later, I tuck my personal poem in my notebook and we head through the large glass doors and into the expansive light-filled atrium. With admission tickets purchased, the pressing job is to decide where to begin in the seven levels of galleries.

 

As both daughters are also studying art, my camera is rarely out of my hand as I snap images and artist details to send to them later. There is so much great American art but one that really connects with me is a piece by the artist Chuck Close. He makes large portrait paintings in which he lays down a unifying grid then adding circles and other shapes of varying colours. This has the effect of pixelating the image and slightly abstracting an otherwise straightforward head portrait. I remember loving his work at The Met in New York City and this was a chance to share it with Steve.

 

But how can you share art with someone? A person’s response to a piece of art is just that – their response. It is also tied to a particular time and place. If this was the first time I had seen Close’s work, would I even feel moved by it? That’s a question without an answer. It was on a visit to New York five years prior. I can recall seeing the painting in The Met as I entered a contemporary art gallery and it was on a far wall. Initially, it was just a large painting of a man’s face. Only as I walked towards it (or is it more accurate to say pulled towards it?) did the gridded abstraction technique make itself clear. It was a hot summer day in New York City when my then-partner and I decided to spend the bulk of the day in The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park to which it abuts. The bright sun was unrelenting with heat radiating off the brick and concrete all around us. So it was that the lush dark green and cool shadows of the park called.

 

After a slow stroll through the park and a snow cone replete with lurid red flavouring, we joined the throng climbing the steps from Fifth Avenue to enter the museum. Immediately, the visitor finds themselves in a vast multi-story foyer, light streaming in, wide arches and dome that in itself makes you draw breath. I’m sure I spied Close’s piece just as I had started to reach overload. It’s that point when nothing starts to make a connection and you find yourself walking past more than you stop at.

 

And make me stop it did. I rushed past the adjoining walls, seeing only the painting in front of me and there I stayed for a long time. Standing, watching, observing others as they barely glanced at this masterpiece. I stood back and I stood close. I didn’t want to leave it but once I did I knew I was done for the day. Nothing else would matter now. How do I share that with another person?

 

So goodbye to Chuck Close, my tired feet and swollen ankles signalling the end of art appreciation for the day and the start of the evening’s entertainment. Another Uber to our dining establishment is both welcome and needed. A fortuitous meeting the day prior has lead to a masterclass of American west coast wines pre-dinner at the restaurant’s bar.

 

Local Kitchen & Wine 330 1st St #1, San Francisco, CA 94105

Starters

Spicy smoked chicken nuggets unlike Ronald McDonald has known with a green goddess dressing, all herby and zesty cutting through the fried protein.

Roasted Brussel sprouts with a mustard vinaigrette, slightly charred on the outside and meltingly soft inside

Main

Wood fired pizza with hot pepperoni, pork and fennel sausage, fresh goats cheese , cherry and San Marzano tomatoes with generous slabs of buffalo mozzarella.

Dessert

Olive oil semi-freddo accompanied by char-grilled, perfectly ripe Californian peaches and a sweet Saba vinegar.

After my spontaneous American wine masterclass, we opted for a wallet-lightening Chateau Montelena 2013 Zinfandel. By dessert, we were ready for a glass or two of 20 year-old Tokaji – sweet without being cloying.

 

San Francisco, CA to Mendocino, CA – Saturday 20th August

 

During our three days in San Francisco, I had tried and failed to light the gas stove so I could boil some water for tea. There’s no point saying I should go out to Starbucks to buy tea. I need tea as I’m pottering around getting ready in the morning. This is a non-negotiable. On our final morning in my new favourite city of San Francisco, I woke early and sat on the mustard velvet love seat peering out the bay window. While the world went about its workday morning business, I curled up and caught up on my journal writing. I decided to take one last go at lighting the mid-century stove in our eclectic Airbnb.

 

Our host is a photographer and the apartment reflects his visual aesthetic. Visual vignettes are everywhere. An over-sized glass candy jar filled with fluorescent-yellow foam ear plugs graces the bedside table. 1960s postcards decorate the table lamps perched on the triangular tables twinning the loveseat. A wooden artist mannequin resuscitates a polymer cockroach. There’s a fine line between art installation and amenity in our second floor Oak Street apartment.

 

With the stove finally conquered, I realise I need to go out hunter-gathering for milk. Americans may like their tea floral, black and insipid but I like mine strong and milky. Coffee here in America is filter coffee with creamer. Creamer is a bizarre concoction of corn syrup solids with hydrogenated soybean or cottonseed oil and white powder thrown in to make it acceptable. Espresso is yet to take strong hold.

 

So out I trek to find somewhere to buy milk. I aim for a service station or convenience store thinking that will be my best bet. A block west and half a block north and I find two service stations opposite each other. Things are looking positive. As I stand on the street corner waiting for the lights to change, I pull my jacket tight around me to guard against the chilly early morning wind. Unmarked white buses pull up just prior to the intersection and collect a small number of people I’ve just noticed gathering. Later, I discover this is a common practice to bus staff out of town to large corporate estates.

 

As I enter the store, I head towards the fridge I see at the rear. There’s no familiarity with the bottles I see on the shelves. Out of the way, I manage to decipher images and words to find plain, unflavoured milk. It would have been easier to buy soft drink, sports drink, juice or even bottled water than milk. America clearly isn’t a strong dairy culture, regardless of the cartons of milk I remember seeing children drinking on television. Like a conqueror, I return home successfully and provide caffeinated beverages to prepare us for a long drive to Mendocino north along the Californian coast, the Pacific Ocean at our side.

 

9:01 AM

955 Oak St, San Francisco, CA 94117, USA

MILES 12.96

TRIP TIME 00:19:44

FARE BREAKDOWN Trip fare $35.11

Subtotal $35.11

Total $35.11

Driver – Tommy

 

We get dropped off at the Europe car rental section of the San Francisco airport. Staying close to our luggage, we take our place in the queue which snakes across communal foyer. The vibrant carpet no doubt hiding all manner of stains.  Finally, international licenses in hand it is our turn and we stand at the long counter. At five feet tall, I’m not tall enough to lean on the top of the reception counter and yet somehow seated the rental sales person still manages to look down on me. The psychology of sales is not lost on me.

 

After negotiating our exit from the car park maze, we can begin the self-guided drive portion of our journey. Across the Golden Gate Bridge which this morning is shrouded in fog and we finally start to move away from the tourist traffic and put some miles under our belt. All too soon though it’s time for our first pit stop at Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma. Our American brewcation was Excel spreadsheeted to the hour by Steve, so we manage to avoid the heaving crowds by turning up as they open at 11am. A tasting paddle of their brewery-only beers and a soft pretzel with beer cheese sauce is a fine late breakfast.

 

Four days of self-driving through Northern California and Oregon dictate that designated-driver Steve is on strictly limited tastings only. California has a legal blood alcohol concentration of 0.8%. While this is higher than what we are used to, the craft beers we are tasting range up towards wine level of 12% ABV (alcohol by volume). The craft breweries we have planned to visit offer all manner of beers from simple west coast IPAs through to barrel-aged stouts. Thankfully, every place offers small tasting paddles.

 

I’ve offered to drive more than once but Steve definitely prefers to be in control. I don’t think he likes being a passenger, in any sense of the word. I’m trying to avoid leaving nail marks in the door upholstery. Why is it that each corner delivers an RV travelling too fast and too close to the centreline?

Along the pilgrimage route is Russian River Brew Company. These legendary craft beers are difficult to get anywhere in Australia. If we had wanted to sample beers from their bar, the wait line was over an hour. Instead, we opt for takeaways from their bottle shop which requires only a 20 minute wait in the noonday sun. We buy their legendary Pliny the Elder which is a Double India Pale Ale that is not only rare in Australia but also overpriced at AU$50 for a standard 500 ml bottle. Much lauded as the ideal DIPA, it regularly receives 95% and higher on beer ratings websites. What do we think we finally get to taste it hours later? Meh; it’s nice but it is nothing more than a well-balanced, bitter fresh ale in the manner of west coast ales with loads of citrus and pine.

We also snag their available barrel aged beers -the Supplication brown ale aged in Pinot Noir barrels with sour cherries, the Temptation blonde ale aged in Chardonnay barrels and the Consecration ale aged in Cabernet barrels. The Supplication is funky thanks to the added yeast and bacteria and nicely tart from the sour cherries. It’s my kind of beer. The Temptation is buttery and slightly oaky with its time hanging out with the Chardonnay barrel. The Consecration is the youngest of the barrel aged beers but is satisfyingly full bodied with hints of chocolate and spice. At 10% ABV, this is our sipper beer that ends up rounding out our evening.

Before we can get to any of that though we need to complete our allotted day’s brewery visits. Next up we have Anderson Valley Brewery in Boonville, CA. It’s after 3pm by the time we arrive and the dry dusty fields that serve as their car park are full of tents and inebriated campers. Turns out, we’ve happened upon their annual Disc Golf Championship weekend, though we never actually witness the event in action. Essentially a competitive frisbee round-robin, Disc Golf, as we soon discover, has a strong craft beer drinking participation in the west of the United States.

We easily locate the taproom by the steady stream of shoeless people trudging towards an unsigned shed. Now, I know Anderson Valley beers from buying them overpriced from our fabulous bar/bottle shop near our house. Their tart thirst-quenching Briny Melon Gose is a go-to for my summer drinking. Salt and watermelon? What’s not to love about that in a beer. Cans and bottles of Dreef Fooper IPA, Boone Amber Ale, Anderson Valley Wild Turkey Bourbon Barrel Stout, and Blood Orange Gose find their way into our cooler. Two litre Growlers and six-packs fill the hands of campers as they stock up and make their way back to their camps, like ants filling the home stores.

Just before we get to Mendocino where we are to stay for the evening, we stop in the town of Little River and buy some snacks for dinner from the only store in town. Its dark weathered exterior nestles into the grey green cliff side, white breakers relentless below. Inside is a bustling well-stocked convenience store that sells bait, beer, groceries and hot food. Crackers, some cured meats, cheese. Earlier we bought ourselves a cooler box so we would have cold beer with us at each destination.

Sitting on a damp garden bench, my bare feet push into the humus rich earth beneath them. Though low clouds have rolled in from the Pacific Ocean hiding the tops of the dark redwoods in their misty skirts, the sky beyond is still bright. Our tiny log cabin is marginally larger than our queen sized bed. An electric kettle, for which I’m grateful, sits upon the mini-fridge. Gathering what we need for the evening from the boot of our rental vehicle (an oversized SUV), I’m eager to simultaneously flop onto the bed with its soft, white linen and explore my surrounds.

The main house is quaint, pale yellow weatherboards and dark grey slate roof. Chooks roam free everywhere except the fenced off vegetable garden. The host family  – mum, dad, five year old daughter, eight and eighteen year old sons – are tucked up inside going about their evening routines. I can hear no cars, no airplanes. It’s odd – this loud silence, almost unnerving. The sound of my pencil rustling against the paper is louder than the birds in the woods that surround me.

Eureka, CA to Elkton, OR – Monday 22nd August

 

A misty morning in the marina at Eureka gave way to sunny clear skies as we headed inland. Each afternoon while travelling along the Northern Californian coast, a gothic fog rolls in from the Pacific Ocean. Cutting off the outside world the mist hangs low among the bobbing boats, the tips of their masts disappearing above. The American Gothic genre is finally beginning to make sense to me.

 

Eureka is a working fishing town with a sprawling marina sheltered behind Woodley island nature reserve. And as such the town is just another typical non-tourist town. No photo-worthy vistas are presented just street upon street of retail, light industrial and residential use. Breakfast had to be at The Chalet House of Omelettes, which we spied on our way into town the previous afternoon.  Its laced lined windows, blue paint trim and over-sized slate tile roof helps it stand proud in a large asphalt car park. After a few days driving on the other side of the road, turning into driveways still challenges Steve with his car positioning and more than once we have stopped halfway only to let an exasperated driver manoeuvre around us, shaking his head and no doubt cursing loudly.

 

An extensive laminated menu is handed to us upon our seating and coffee poured without asking. Additionally, decorated chalkboard menus above the counter spruik today’s, and possibly yesterday’s and tomorrow’s, specials. Wall space was taken up with more menu exposition, photos of local celebrities and historical images. They needn’t have bothered with the cottage-style striped wallpaper or plywood panelling.

 

Opting for a plate of biscuits and gravy to tick that off my to-eat list, Steve chose scrambled eggs with country sausage (a seasoned mince patty) and a hash brown that I’m sure was half the size of his face. To decode biscuits and gravy, you need to realise that it is not a biscuit as in a cookie and nor is it a meat juices based reduction. American biscuits are a version of a scone with no sugar and not necessarily as light and fluffy as you would want with cream and jam. The gravy portion is a white, roux-based sauce that hopefully has cream added for richness. It may or may not come with seasoned ground meat through it. The better ones do as it gives you a reason to eat the dish.

 

I have made this dish at home a year or two prior to my travels. I browned ground pork with fennel, garlic powder and onion powder as per my American cousins like to use, paprika, parsley, salt and pepper then drained off excess fat. Adding this to a basic white sauce made with heavy cream and serving with fresh biscuits/scones and I can see the appeal. My biscuits and gravy at The Chalet house of Omelettes, however, was not appealing.

 

So we hit the road resolving to stop somewhere along the way for second breakfast.

 

‘You don’t do road trips well, do you?’ Steve proposes about an hour into our morning drive.

 

Reaching forward to turn down the podcast we are streaming through the car stereo, ‘Why do you say that?’ I ask, genuinely curious.

 

‘Well you don’t seem to want to stop much. We’ve missed two things already this morning.’

 

‘I don’t like crowds and stopping to take a picture of the largest redwood along with fifty other people doesn’t really do it for me.’ I’m not sure what more to say. I’m rarely attracted to the things that other tourists are drawn towards. I’m not interested in the Grand Canyon, the 911 memorial or Disneyland.It’s the Queen Anne style house, painted murky green on a hill overlooking the Eureka marina that I am drawn towards. It’s the discovering of something unexpected and unearthing its story that most delights me. The Carson mansion built in 1884 looks like it has come direct from Disney Haunted Houses 101.

 

The Denny’s restaurant we decide to stop at in Crescent City shares a car park with a bridal and a gun store. This is the America I came to experience. The sum of our experience is made up of the deliberately sought and the accidentally found. A slice of chocolate caramel pie for Steve and bacon cheddar tater tots with a side of jalapeño honey bacon for me.

 

Back in the car and more of Mark Maron interviewing other celebrities is our slightly aggressive soundtrack for the afternoon drive as we press on into Oregon. Almost immediately the quality of the roads change. Yes, we saw the state line signs to alert us that we were leaving California and entering Oregon but I would’ve known some border had been crossed. The roads change altogether. The lanes get wider with large cleared shoulders on each side, the asphalt becomes smoother providing less road noise inside the vehicle which had the effect of amping up Mark Maron’s verbal attacks. Tall lush green redwoods no longer loom over us.

 

At first, we think the change might be temporary but it isn’t. While I can’t definitively declare, I believe the state tax on the now-legalised cannabis industry has been pumped back into state infrastructure. It is a conversation I bring a few days later with Uber driver Jaimie. He confirms that the state government is enjoying a new found wealth thanks to the booming legal cannabis industry.

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Learning Patience via Fermentation 

So, I’ve been fermenting for a while really.  Like many things in life it started with wine, well leftover wine. I know, ironic, eh? Leftover wine for those who are unclear on the concept is wine that is not consumed and remains either in the glass or in the bottle. I don’t know how it happened but it did. Maybe I was feeling unwell. Anyway skip to the next day and I’ve got say half a bottle’s worth of dregs. I don’t have any slow braises happening in the near future and I don’t know what to do with the wine. I should point out here that I’m frugal as they come; I abhor waste.

So I decide to make some vinegar. I already intellectually know the process and and have found vinegar mothers in my purchased vinegars. So I grab a bottle of commercial vinegar with some mother (those swirly cloudy bits in the bottom that you may have wondered about) and dump that plus the leftover wine into a ceramic mixing bowl which I proceed to cover with a shower cap to keep prying cats, flies or other curious undesirables away. Said bowl goes on shelf in the pantry, shoved towards the back to forget about for a while. Every now and then, at no particular schedule, I lift the cover and stir and check on my creature. This is not the patience bit mentioned in the title because to be frank, I know this process is going to take months, so I’m resigned to it.

Fast forward a couple of years and we are in a whole other place. I’ve now got three vinegars on the go – a malt vinegar from one of our home brews (a simple Belgian ale), a red wine vinegar and a white vinegar. I have a red and white in use as well as the three fermenting themselves away in the back of the cupboard. For the last 9 months or so, I’ve also been the proud parent of sourdough starters. A bit like children, although infinitely easier at bedtime, they require some care. They need to be fed regularly and benefit from nourishing conditions. I’m most proud of my rye starter – the middle child ironically.  She’s no problem, very compliant and responds well to the smallest amount of attention. I’ve foregone the wholewheat starter as it went a bit grey for my liking and started to smell too acidic. The organic unbleached white one is still doing well though I do tend to favour the rye.  I use the rye starter and a make a rye leaven regardless of the composition of the flour in the final loaf. I get the best rising from this and naturally a great flavour and crust crunch.

This is the starter recipe I followed
This is the bread recipe I followed
I also recommend you google You Tube videos. This helped me with my dough technique – how to handle it and how it should appear when the gluten is developed. Anything related to Tartine bakery is a good option. We had the good fortune to visit Tartine when we were in America in 2016 and I’m glad we did. Also, get out and buy sourdough bread in your town and figure out what you like in bread. Some places have a real dark crust, others have a chewy caramel crust and the internal varies a lot also. Experiment with different flours and not just different types of flour but different brands and sources of flour. I like to buy small amounts from my local organic shop which they portion out so I know the turnover is good. It’s a busy place and that’s a good sign. Nothing sits on the shelf long enough to get dusty and old.

Making sourdough bread doesn’t take a long time but it does require you be around to knead for a bit before resting. I’m learning, through my failures as much as my successes, how far I can push it regarding time and temperature. It all gets eaten in the end, whether as toast, bread and butter pudding or breadcrumbs. Remember, I abhor waste.

So that’s vinegar and bread covered. We also home brew. Steve and I take turns being head brewer – it doesn’t work otherwise and I’d like to stay living with him currently. We’ve produced rye IPAs, many different stouts, Belgian ales, English ales and so on. It’s fun. Steve, unsurprisingly likes the equipment side of things though we did start out with just some large stock pots and a borrowed fermenter. I like producing from basic kitchen supplies. Steve likes toys, oops sorry, tools. When he’s busy trying to sterilise everything, I like to remind him that humans have been producing beer without stericlean for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. As Sandor Katz, says ‘sterility is a myth’ – but we’ll come back to him shortly. There’s a plethora of information about home brewing on the internet and just as many contradictions as there are agreements. I found our local brewing supplies shop a very useful resource. The guy that works there on the weekend is friendly, happy to help out the beginner and a great resource.

Brewcraft – 143 Church St, Richmond VIC 3121
And fortuitously, Moon Dog Brewing is just around the corner for a quick one whilst you contemplate the upcoming brew.

Okay so that’s vinegar, bread and beer accounted for.

I’ve recently converted to kombucha. I know it’s really hip and trendy right now but it just my digestive system so much better. It relieves reflux in my upper abdominal area and means I feel more balanced overall. I’m not going to into too much detail about my health but just know that I feel better with it in my life. So, how did I get going on my own? More internet research here and here. The first link helped me use my vinegar mother to kickstart a kombucha scoby (another link, somebody is responsible for teaching me hyperlinks – blame them).  So now I have two kombucha as different stages of fermentation. I now question whether the plural of kombucha is kombuchas – I don’t know.

And finally we get to mead. I love honey, everything about it. Its smell, range of flavour and its sweet stickyness. I love the meads I’ve tasted but the frugal side of me hates paying that much for something I’m sure I can make myself. So, more research and ta-da, I’ve now got two meads from two different honeys on the go. This is where the patience comes in (apart from your patience, dear reader to get to this bit that relates to the title – thanks.) Mead has two stages of fermentation. It can be drunk at 10-14 days as what is known as ‘green’ mead – think young for green rather than mould. Alternatively, it can left for months to ferment all the sugars, giving a drier flavour and long lasting  bottling capabilities. Not one to do things simply, I’m doing both. So depending on which green mead I prefer I’ll retain a cup of that to add to the 5 litres I’m going to long stage ferment. Raw honey, not heat treated is imperative to this process. Also, boiling and cooling the water before mixing the honey is important.  More info here

I want my mead to be ready now but I can’t make it happen any quicker. I can check on it daily and burp it to avoid any explosions. I’m already planning my ginger beer but again that requires patience. Fermentation has its own timetable and the best I can do is be witness to this natural wonder. Maybe that’s the takeaway lesson from this, not the skills of making the product but learning patience to let things run at their own pace, not mine.

The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz I got his book from the library and made recipe cards. I told you I’m frugal.
People’s Republic of Fermentation videos to watch while you wait.

Temporary Goddess

Twisting hips left to right, ducking beneath the improbably loaded baskets, we struggle to match pace through the dimly lit market stalls. Our guide turns around infrequently to keep an eye on her goddesses. Both translator and chief haggler, she knows which way to steer us in order to locate the best value products. Vibrant fabrics and clothing in one building, too-cheap tourist souvenirs in another, and between, at street level, lies more variety of fresh produce than I have seen in a long time. Piles of whole, freshly butchered chicken carcasses – feet and head included -piled high at one stall, trays of eggs of all sizes and varieties at the next. Baskets of fragrant tiny limes pass under my hands. Dark, pimply avocados larger than my fist sit alongside futuristic magenta dragon fruit, and deeper into the shadows I can smell the spice stalls with their enticing secrets.

The market visit primes my tastebuds and, thankfully, our lunch delights both the eye and the palate. Perched on wooden stools underneath a canopy of lush trees, we sit passive as the banquet is laid before us by a cadre of waiters. Platters laden with water spinach, peanuts and chilli sambal. Coconut, bean shoots and seaweed salad dressed with lime and lemongrass. Whole fish fried with tomatoes, shallots and chillies. Grilled chicken crucified on bamboo sticks then rubbed with traditional aromatic Balinese spices (turmeric and garlic was all I could determine). More fish, this time pounded and wrapped in banana leaves. And this is only day one.

On returning to the Goddess Yoga Retreat in Seminyak, I’m grateful for its hidden location at the end of an unmarked lane. Balinese traffic is not for the faint-hearted. Good-natured use of the car horn and frequent waving of the hand, drivers appear to negotiate road lanes as a fluid idea. One does not go for a leisurely drive to unwind. Guests come from around the world and for their own reasons. My presence here is thanks to the expired passport of a relative giving me the chance to indulge in new experiences. This afternoon I’ve signed up for a session with a traditional Balinese healer.

Half hidden behind vines and bamboo, I open the French doors of the studio and part the cheesecloth curtains to the side. A short, solid man not much older than myself –though I’m really only guessing — greets me. Softly spoken, his English is much better than my Indonesian. Pak Bagus, or Papa Bagus as the retreat managers refer to him, is dressed simply in a once-white t-shirt and blue batik print shorts with the standard bare feet.

‘Why are you here?’ he asks simply. Choosing not to dwell on the more philosophical sides of the question, I briefly explain my recent diverticulitis. Basic words and some hand gesturing later he nods and directs me to lie down. I untie my sarong and lie face down on the massage table. He places his hands on my back at different intervals and blows gently upon my skin. Without any massage oil I am alternately poked and prodded, stroked and manipulated sometimes to the point of discomfort. I can’t decide whether he’s trying to work the bad stuff out or work the good stuff in.

Occasionally I draw in a quick breath when he works on a painful spot. ‘Big infection’ he repeats time and again. He closes his eyes and his lubed up hands explore, press and release sections of my abdomen. ‘You tell me if pain’ he says and I nod enthusiastically. As he holds firmly in certain spots, I feel sharp twinges on my lower left side. I tell him straight away. He nods but doesn’t really let up the pressure. Most likely as a distraction technique, he asks me about my family – children, husband and so on. He tells me about an Australian group he was dealing with the previous week and I interject with, ‘It’s my first time in Bali actually.’

‘Why?’ he exclaims.  I quickly apologise and explain that I was never interested in the beach and Bintang style of holiday and I didn’t understand what else this island had to offer. I make sure he understands that I recognise my folly. I wax lyrical about Ubud and its stunning natural beauty, the artisans we’ve met, the friendly generosity of the people we’ve encountered and the incredible food we’ve eaten. I hope I’ve convinced him that this will not be my last visit to this beautiful island.

Like a rotisserie chicken, I’m oiled and turned, seasoned with spices and turned again. Meanwhile he expounds on his unique skills set : ‘Astrology, astronomy, massage, healer, ceremony . . . ‘ He pauses for no doubt dramatic effect ’magic’. I leave this last one in the air.

When my time has elapsed, I slowly sit up and find my sarong. Straightening my dishevelled underwear, I listen to his last minute prescriptions. ‘Massage. You need massage in Melbourne. Who can do that?’ I reassure him that there are plenty of places I can get massages. He also does his best to explain that I need to work on my gut bacteria. I thank him, palms pressed firmly together in front of my chest fingers skyward as is the custom. I slink off back to my room before I have to encounter anyone.

The following morning after breakfast, I seclude myself away on a raised bale bengong or daydream gazebo and observe the morning’s goings-on from my corner.Housekeeping staff in cool white cotton pants and cyan blue batik print shirts are occupied with their cleaning routines. Two young men arrive to complete their grounds-keeping duties. Bundles of stiff reeds make short work of the fallen leaves and flowers. The neat lawns are once again spotless. Bamboo blinds are raised on the yoga room to allow fresh air in after the morning’s gentle Yin session.

Fans circling lazily overhead, three goddesses lounge on large soft white cushions, getting lost in the colouring in books. Some women are on a shopping crusade, seeking out a good/known version of coffee and hopefully returning with souvenirs. Later upon travel home, they will no doubt regale their loved ones with grand stories of their trek brandishing their trophies as proof of prowess. Others are already at work pampering their body with some of the selection of unlimited spa treatments.

A low flying helicopter overhead interrupts the gentle drip of the morning’s rain from onto my gazebo roof. So out of place a noise here, we all stop and look up to watch it pass. Operations Manager Joyce steps out of her office and talks briefly to one of the two young men. Gestures are made by both of them indicating mid-calf level but whether it’s about the length of their pants or some shoes, I cannot make out. Shoes are optional and now only the third day in, many goddesses are traipsing around happily barefoot. It’s a custom I’m easily converting to.

Joyce and the other facilitators gather around the table in preparation for lunch. No bell is rung or voices raised. Women just start to gather and take any available seat. Today’s lunch is Gado gado – a salad composed of bean shoots, tomato, green beans, tofu and hardboiled egg with a spicy peanut dressing. It is both cleansing and filling at once. Local tea with lemon is a refreshing accompaniment.

Joyce kicks off the getting to know you session by telling us a bit about herself. Having moved from Sumatra 13 years earlier, she met the retreat’s founder, Chelsea, on the beach one day. Joyce speaks of Chelsea as being one of the most inspiring women she’s ever met. Perhaps she is part founder and part guru.

Theoretically, I know Bali has beaches because my mind’s singular image of a Bali holiday is bogan Aussies drinking Bintang on the beach. I will be perfectly content if I don’t step foot on a Bali beach. Beaches are best windswept, cool and empty of the clutter of other people. Walking slowly along the sand just at that edge where it’s not too wet and the waves get you or not too soft that it begins to feel like exercise, your reward being to just sit and watch the waves roll in ceaselessly. There’s nothing more simple and direct to convince me that I am just one small part of a large world that existed before me and is content to go on without me.

After lunch, I walk a dozen paces barefoot to the air-conditioned spa rooms upstairs above the yoga room. The gentle rain adds a soft soundtrack to our days and its presence almost demands we take things slowly and adjust to island time.

My spa treatment this afternoon is courtesy of Yeni. Her thin, supple fingers are surprisingly strong and she manipulates my limbs and muscles easily. My body is engaged and so my mind wanders. I wonder if her loved ones ever get to experience these magic fingers. She leans in close, whispering, ‘Excuse me, Miss.’ I roll over onto my back whilst she raises the thin, batik printed sarong of brilliant blues to preserve my modesty. She applies a rough scrub of crushed dried green tea leaves and local jungle bee honey, she lets this rest on my skin then slowly rubs it in and off with long firm strokes, making a grand mess all over the shiny, white tiled floor.

Invigorated, I am sent on my way with instructions to shower the remainder of the scrub off. Instinctively I go to smell my arm and it is sweet, almost fruity. I’ll skip the tasting bit. A quick shower off, into my still-wet bathers then into the pool I dive, two steps from our door so no sarong required.

○ ○ ○

The gin was only partly to blame really.  A litre of duty-free Gin, juicy fragrant limes, cold tonic water with generous amounts of ice and the smiling kitchen staff have mastered the art of a perfect gin and tonic – the ideal conversational lubricant.

After dinner the women slowly disappear one by one until I’m sitting here in the evening’s heat with an empty glass. My eye catches the light reflected in the pool. I realise that I’m still wearing my bathers underneath my loose top. Peeling it off over my head I drop it on the thick soft grass. I lower myself in quietly and begin my expert dolphin moves. Diving down to touch the rough pool floor then rising again, my head breaking gently through the surface.

I float on my back looking upwards gazing at the few visible stars, hearing only the rippling water. The knot where my bather top ties behind my neck is bulky and awkward as I try to arch my head backwards. So I untie it and also the clasps behind my back, flinging the wet top onto the rattan sun lounges. Diving below the surface once more the cool water swirls around me.  After a few laps around the pool, no one has appeared from the villas.

Climbing out, I go search for the light switches. Palm flat to the wall and quickly they are extinguished. Only the lights inside the pool remain on. The ability to turn these off eludes me. Caution is thrown quickly aside as I whip bather bottoms off and I dive back into the pool. So refreshing is the feeling of water on my skin.

○ ○ ○

Our Balinese cooking class scheduled for today is to be held at Hotel Tugu Bali in Canggu Beach. Sleepier than Seminyak, it draws less of the Aussie bogan and more of the surfer type though it is still a month off from the start of surfing season apparently.

 

Greeted on arrival by our chef de jour, a short woman introduces herself as Sri.Though later I discover she is only the assistant to Iboe Soelastri, the true cooking guru. This older woman of indeterminate age had mastered the subtle skill of wielding the cleaver through the meat with one hand whilst her second hand massages and rotates the meat and also overseeing our preparation so the pace of the dishes is on time and in order. The guru won’t allow Sri to finish a dish until the perfect taste profile has been reached. Following a recipe is all nice and well for us simple folk but being guided by over forty years of experience, our guru advises of more salt or sugar or lime to balance.

Our first dish is to be a minced spiced beef parcel wrapped and steamed in banana leaves. Banana leaves are ubiquitous here. Folded and made into boxes to hold offerings of flowers and incense, lining the steamer basket and placed underneath dishes for presentation, they literally do grow on trees. In the segregated boxes next to our chopping boards lay a rainbow of ingredients. Sri shows us to how to rub the long red mild chillies between our hands back and forth. This loosens the seeds so when you slice it open they fall out easily. Lemongrass will get the root ends bashed firmly with the handle of the knife to break up the fibres. Some of the bulbs get peeled and some don’t and I can’t see a pattern but I duly do as I’m instructed. Large shards of coconut are grilled over the open flame, slightly catching alight adding a lovely charred edge.

Under the low roof of our open air kitchen, the intense heat and humidity is taking a toll on us. The sweat doesn’t take long to drip down my back between my shoulder blades and run down my thighs. My linen skirt and loose top cling to my now damp skin. I’m thankful when they produce refrigerated wet towels to cool ourselves with, reminding myself that one of retreat co-ordinators referred to this season as winter this morning as she wrapped a scarf around her neck.

We grind our spice pastes on a lava stone mortar and pestle unlike anything I’d ever seen. About the size of a dinner plate, it is mostly flat with small pits. The technique involves a rocking back and forth of the pestle and long dragging strokes. The chillies and shallots release their juices to help bind the pastes. Some pastes are fried off in coconut oil, others boiled in water to achieve a more mellow flavour.  Between taking photos and chopping chillies, I absent-mindedly wipe the sweat off my upper lip with my hand and soon feel the familiar burn. Next time, I’ll use the edge of my cheesecloth apron.

Nasi goreng fried rice, and snake bean and toasted coconut salad are then served in the cool dark hotel restaurant. Before we are delivered back, I can’t resist a stroll down to their private beach for a stickybeak. I know I said that I’d be content not to step one foot on the beach this trip and technically that is still valid. Under the oppressive sun I stand on the manicured lawn and look out towards the grey sand and gently breaking water. I decide that nothing is to be gained walking another 200m to feel sand under my toes. Turning away, I’m more than happy to leave the skin cancer seekers to their own devices. Food packed up and driver summoned I’m very happy to be ferried in air conditioned comfort back to the retreat where the quiet and mostly empty grounds are now a familiar sight.

On our final morning, the goddesses assemble in a circle on cotton bolsters in the yoga shala ready for our group meditation. Loose light clothing and the obligatory mosquito repellent to scent my ankles and neck and I’m ready to send love and good vibes to my compadres. Laura, our yoga goddess, looks calm and relaxed in her stretch leggings and loose singlet. Pale blonde hair pulled back off her face, she is the epitome of a yoga teacher. Tall and slim her lithe limbs appear so at home in poses that confuse and elude me though she continues to encourage us “no matter what body turned up for you on the mat this morning.” This morning to finish off our week’s retreat, we have an OM circle. This mantra chanting is supposed to provide vibrational healing both mentally and emotionally.

Each will experience the circle differently; no expectations and no pre-conceptions.Focussing on my breath and centring my mind, I get better at the whole omming thing as the chant progresses. When I’m tapped gently on the knee, it’s my turn in the centre. I feel the cool hard floorboards beneath me. Across my skin I sense the breeze from the fan or as I like to think of it the breath of the divine Goddess blowing her healing energy into my abdomen, supporting the work of Papa Bagus. There’s no pain in my intestinal region only a strong awareness of this area.

As the circle comes to a close, we all stretch our limbs then wander over to our breakfast table. The infectious grin that is plastered across Laura’s face even during complicated yoga poses and her cool relaxed demeanour in the high humidity betray no concerns. Over breakfast, I ask Laura more about her move from Australia. Doubts were raised continuously by others in her life and she hop-scotched between home and Bali six times before she managed to shut out those other voices and relocate with true intention.

Sitting here at the table, I think about how I’m going to miss having a selection of tasty healthy foods prepared freshly for me at each meal. Platters of brightly coloured tropical fruits are offered up each morning for our viewing and consuming pleasure. Dragonfruit of such a strong shade of fuchsia with tiny black seeds that it looks like a child coloured it in. Snake fruit with scaly brown skin and an off white fibrous perfumed flesh. Mango is less creamy and sweet than I’m used and slightly astringent. Papaya perfectly ripe and not the least bit funky. Mangosteen is a delight once you cut through the thick skin and reveal its sweet white flesh. There are also the tastiest eggs poached or scrambled as you like, seedy brown bread and juices in new combinations each day.

There will be no limitless spa treatments at my disposal, no strong fingers tracing the muscles of my back.  My white cotton sheets won’t be changed each day with the corner turned down and a small affirmation card on my pillow. The lyrical sounds of the housekeeping staff talking to each in Balinese will no longer be a soundtrack to my afternoons lazing on the couches in the lounge. Good thing I’m looking forward to going home.

 

The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes
They had only made it half way to the front door. I’d remembered to bring them down from my bedroom but left them on the half-height wall in the lounge. It was a habit we had gotten into – leaving things by the stairs to be taken up or down.  Our cats had other plans for things left on the walls. Like brave hunters protecting their masters, they would bat items off the wall and onto the floor, forcing the object to submit to their feline dominance.
So, I had moved the shoes in case they should suffer the same fate, the heavy wood heels marking the wood floor. Our landlords were cautious and had forced us to sign extra documents in our rental contract. We would not allow anyone to wear stiletto heels on the timber floor. Do I even know anyone who wears stilettos? We would not have any dogs or cats. Whoops.
The red leather shoes got put on top of a crate in my painting area. I don’t have a studio but a small area lined with a tarp then drop-sheet to protect the beloved floorboards. Plastic crates held my paints, rags and jars with brushes in varying stages of utility. Balanced upon a bar stool, an old tile served as my palette.
One evening alone and half a bottle of pink wine later, the urge struck. I didn’t have an image in mind like I often do. I looked around saw the shoes and thought why not. Loosely sketching the image onto the canvas, I got to thinking about such an everyday object in my life. I’d never been one of those women who own loads of shoes. I only wear shoes that are absolutely comfortable. I prefer flats over heels. Barefoot most of the time, any heels I do own must be able to be run in if the need arose.
There was a well dressed man who I briefly dated. He was a gentleman, sending a car to pick me up for our second date, where upon I met his best friend and wife. It was a well-reviewed bayside restaurant with an indulgent wine list and meal usually beyond my modest budget. I talked comfortably with the driver on the way to dinner. Working in a service industry myself, I’ve always chatted easily with waiters, bar staff and customer service assistants. They often know the best places for a drink or meal.
Over a few weeks, he wined and dined me. One afternoon, he turned up at my work to surprise me with a fancy dinner after work. We walked along the street after I finished up, me giving him the tour of the small country town in which I worked. Holding hands, we looked in the shop windows finally stopping at a popular bar for a glass of cold, white wine – a welcome perk of working in a fabulous wine region.
In the window of one store that I rarely entered due to my tight budget, we stopped and admired a pair of red heels. He asked if I liked them; I responded that I did. The store was closed so I knew he wasn’t going to buy them for me. I assumed he was just trying to learn more about what I liked and didn’t like. The seed had been sown though. I liked the shoes but I knew I didn’t need the shoes. I did, however, envision myself wearing them with jeans, with dresses, floral skirts – anything.
After we broke up, I decided to buy them. It wasn’t retail therapy to cheer myself up as I wasn’t really upset that we’d broken up. There had been something about the relationship that had felt a bit off. Maybe it was that he owned more beauty products and shoes than I did.
It was around this time that I began to reflect on what I had learned from the men that I had dated since my marriage dissolved. From one, I learned that I didn’t like being organized by others. From another, I learned that it is important to me to hear the words ‘I love you’. From the aforementioned gentleman, I learned that I could treat myself to some of the finer things in life.
So I went and spent more money on a pair of shoes than I had ever in my life. I slipped my feet inside and they were perfect – no pinching, no rubbing. And I did wear them with dresses, floral skirts and jeans. I loved wearing them. I felt special. Occasionally people noticed them and I would bend my knee, raise my hem and look down to admire them also. I smiled and said – thank you, I love them too.
I remember one night at a gypsy music bar in the inner north – you probably know it, it only serves crepes, two savory and two sweet options. Red-checked table cloths, velvet-clad chairs, and only one wine glass. If you are early enough you’ll get the wine glass, otherwise it’s a tumbler for you. I’m one of those early type people and while that doesn’t help with my social anxiety that the event won’t even happen, it did mean that the wine glass was generally mine.
 I found the bar via a piano-accordion player I briefly tried dating though things never seemed to quite work out there. We seemed to continually miss each other somehow.  I did, however, fall in love with the whole bohemian music scene. The swirling cacophony of notes, plaintive vocals and impassioned dancing hypnotized me. I was hooked and kept schlepping from middle suburbia into this exotic other world. My shoes brought me here. They belonged here.
One sultry summer evening, I didn’t feel like going out but had read in a well-meaning friend’s book on dating rules that the first step is just showing up. So I climbed into the low cut black dress that celebrated my curves and my comfortable, reliable red shoes. I did get compliments on my shoes. Small positive words buoyed me. The glass full of wine didn’t hurt either.
Then there was the Italian chef I had previously dated. I was now single. Again, it had been a relationship that didn’t pan out for any apparent reason. I wasn’t hung up on it. We’d both been invited to a party up country by the chef who had originally set us up on our first date. Not exactly a blind date, we had known each other through mutual friends.
Now country parties don’t normally seem like a heels kind of occasion but they had hired a function space and bungalows for the event. And I wanted to impress. I wanted to be the one who was in control. I wanted to be the one to choose to sleep with him or not.
It was going to be a great weekend. I’d taken the time off work, which was rare for me. Parties thrown by chefs are always good. Hospitality people like to drink and I’m not talking casks of Jacobs Creek. Platters groaned with piles of antipasto, cheese, seafood and more. Each surface offered up something delightful to eat or drink.
 It was late summer and the drive north was through some dry land indeed. Different shades of brown stretched from one side of the horizon to the other. Bushfires had raged across the hills only a year or two prior and many of the guests were somewhat twitchy. The firestorm was still a very real memory for most.
 I’m not a country girl though I worked out that way for many years and had grown to have an understanding of why people chose to live in such an area even though it was remote from the city with the very real threat of bushfire each summer. For me, I was always happy to return to my middle suburban life.
So I brought my shoes along with me. My red wrap dress and the heels worked their magic. I loved that evening. An entertaining group of people – I was with my tribe. I belonged even though I’d only met a handful of them before. I ate and drank with vigor, even danced to delightfully daggy 1980’s music. We did spend the night together. Though nothing further eventuated between us, I was fine with that.
Ten years on the shoes have seen better days – chunks out of the wooden heel, paint rubbed off the rear piece of leather, straps loose and soles very thin. Can they be rehabilitated? Should they be rehabilitated? Are they still relevant in my life? Am I painting a souvenir of times gone by or immortalizing a beloved item in my life?
A few days later, I find myself at the cobbler.  She is a short, spunky woman about my age who I slightly want to be. She seems to have found a trade she believes in and loves, that tires her but makes her feel useful. Her calloused, stained hands turn the shoes over and over, evaluating them while I try and explain what I hope for them. I’m not sure if what I’m asking is possible. How can I explain to her in just a few minutes what these mean to me, why I can’t seem to accept that they may have reached the end of their life? She finally looks up and smiles. I think things are going to be okay.

Food as love.


If you’ve ever read  The Five Languages of Love book, or done one of those flippant Facebook quizzes, you’ve probably heard of the concept that we fall into particular camps regarding how we express our love for another – romantic or otherwise. Inconveniently, we also use this filter to perceive the actions of others as loving or not. If you’re curious, feel free to do an online search for the relevant terms and discover if you do perceive the actions of others as loving, and I will use the term nurturing as well. The fun bit is seeing if you and your partner, if you have one, view things the same way. I’m betting you don’t.

One of the main ways I demonstrate my love towards someone is to cook for them. Food is and has always been a big part of my life so this isn’t exactly surprising. I recall being sixteen and cooking a dish which at the time was not only a favourite of mine but also I considered being fairly cutting edge. Please bear in mind it was the 1980’s.

There was this guy I was trying to impress and hopefully get further along the baseball diamond scenario with (first base, second base – you with me?).  I even had two versions of this winner dish. The classic version was pan fried chicken breast fillet with a bacon and avocado cream sauce. I know, told you it would be classic. My alternative version was pasta with a chicken, bacon, avocado and cream sauce. Even now as I type these words, I cringe at the thought of dry stringy chicken meat (which I’m sure it was with the fear of food poisoning looming over my head), hard cooked nubs of bacon and under-ripe soapy tasting avocado in a too sweet creamy bath.

I can’t remember his name only that my parents had gone away to their beach house for the weekend and the coast was clear. I can picture a pimply face, short dark hair and him leaning against the kitchen bench whilst I tried to win him over with my kitchen confidence. The wine was Mateus rose – that classic semi-sweet from Portugal. I won’t reveal how well my efforts were received as my mum might read this.

A really beautiful part of the school that my children attended was the rosters that were set up when the class had a new mother. Healthy meals were provided that would nourish the family of the new baby. It was a Steiner school that my children attended so many dietary variations such as vegetarian, allium/dairy/gluten-free and so on had to be respected.

Only a few years ago, one gentleman I had started dating was quite strict on only consuming free range meats and had been lamenting the dearth of smallgoods that fit with his self-imposed parameters. My local organic store stocked a wide selection so I gathered salamis, sliced cured products and sausages into a bouquet complete with tissue paper wrapping. Again, decorum will prevent me from delving into precisely how grateful he was but I’m sure you can figure it out.

What I’m saying is nourishing people with food is one significant way that I show how I care. Of course, I do like compliments and affirmations of I love you but if I cook for you, it’s because I love you. The next bit is figuring out how other people are saying it to me.

Word Con 2, graphic novels and me


First up at Word Con 2 last week, was Robyn Doreian in conversation with Simon McKeown. Writing for illustrative text has been a subject of ups and downs for me. I don’t read graphic novels or comics so I really had to work hard at finding aspects that I could relate to and work with.

Simon’s comics have a strong Victorian thread as they centre on the grand old hotels of Bendigo. The second in his projected series of ten, ‘The True History of the Whipstick Sound’, obviously features many musical references. One double page spread shows album covers of fictional bands. It is this sort of extra layer of information that I really enjoy and thanks to Simon’s prompting I went back to scour a reference book I own – “1000 Record Covers” by Michael Ochs (see links hereand here).

It made me consider my own relationship with music, which I will admit is not overly deep. I do remember a second hand record store that was on Burke Road in Camberwell. Records were displayed in liberated milk crates alphabetically but not by style. Personally I thought this was a genius approach as I became exposed to things I made never have previously come across. There was a turntable with a pair of headphones controlled by the grumpy staff – just like in the movies. For a middle suburban teenage girl, it was all very exotic. I uncovered The Damned there.

And for those who are curious, below is a mock up of the front cover and one internal page of the comic I’ve been working on. 
The story centres on a woman with taste synaethesia and her journey in life. You can read the prologue here

Gretel – prologue to a graphic novel I’m working on


She couldn’t help it. It was part of her. It wasn’t something that she one day decided to do or something that she could turn on or off. All her life, people had told her to just ignore it. You couldn’t just ignore it. It was distracting. People were distracting. It wasn’t a simple thing to walk down to the shops for a newspaper. She liked to wear smudged sunglasses and an old cap low on her head to avoid any unwanted attention from people. She mostly wore drab grey loose clothing. Her eyes looked only a few steps ahead so she didn’t actively walk into someone. That would be the worst. Catching someone’s eye or having to engage in conversation was bad enough. Physical touch was too much.

She read somewhere that it had something to do with extra links in the brain. Doctors had wanted to study her brain but she had no interest in submitting herself to endless rounds of tests and scans. Letting her body go into one of those huge expensive machines wasn’t part of her plan. Not that she really had a plan. Her plans usually went as far as what work and other obligations she had that week. Family birthdays, sure, were kind of hard to get out of but she avoided appointments where possible. She hadn’t been to the dentist in five years and had started to worry if that sensitivity in her top right teeth was actually a problem. The thought of someone’s hands in her mouth was more than she could bare.

Who knows what the dentist or their assistant would taste like? Thirty year old carpet, skin that has spent too many hours in the sun all sweaty and salty or over-heated milk sickly sweet and sour. They never tasted like warm cherry pie or straight from the oven chocolate cookies. With all of the possible tastes in this world, why was it that she encountered more unpleasant than pleasant ones. Did other taste synesthetics experience the same thing? She didn’t know anyone else with her gift so couldn’t answer the question.

She’d never met another taste synesthetic. She first learned the term when she was a teenager. Wikipedia and internet chat rooms were her salvation. A doctor had declared his diagnosis one day after years of visits. Lexical-gustatory synaesthesia to be precise. As a baby, the notes on her Maternal Child record book noted that she had been ‘failing to thrive’. Her mother had always fussed over her poor eating habits as a child and hoped that things would improve when she started school. Surely her peer group would provide a positive influence. They didn’t.

 She was petit and found it easy to fade into the corners. At recess and lunch time she managed to appear occupied with packing up classroom activities, tidying her desk or taking a trip to the bathroom. Her teachers never seemed to notice that she spent more time unpacking her individually wrapped lunch items than she did consuming them.

The crackers and the carrot sticks had to be in separate containers. Cheese slices had to be a particular brand and kept cool. Cross contamination and possible food spoilage were easy excuses for food to be put in the large round file in the corner of the classroom. Other kids turfed their dry crusts and browned apple cores amongst the scrunched waxed paper and plastic scraps. Gretel became adept at hiding her mother’s homemade treats in between the foil and brown paper bags of the class’ detritus.

After school she would retire to her room and sit with her favourite blanket under the desk that her mother had kept from her own childhood. Her mother envisioned the little girl at the desk reading her beloved books saved from her own childhood, cutting and gluing artistic creations or drawing grand designs on endless supplies of paper. Instead, Gretel would sit leaning against the wooden desk, with the afternoon sun streaming through dusty net curtains onto her legs until she succumbed to snooze-land.

Her mother was grateful that Gretel didn’t come home from school and plop in front of the TV like other children she knew. She assumed that the school day exhausted her sweet little girl. Gretel lacked energy partly due to her lack of food consumption but also because she found interaction with other people so energy zapping. They were too stimulating, too distracting, too much. She couldn’t watch TV or go to the movies. All those people, all those words and sounds each with their own taste. Everything got too much. One would be lid ice-cream, another would be defrosted bread, synthetic maple syrup, damp grass, raw potato, and ear-wax or week old kitty litter.

She could understand the appeal of texture and temperature when it came to food but flavour as embodied in food was a foreign concept to Gretel. She would taste flavours thousands of times a day and so didn’t experience hunger as others did. Flavour went beyond sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. She had tried and failed to describe the taste of vinyl car upholstery after hours in the sun. Oily, sweaty and flaccid went only part way there. It was also earthy and sweet with a lingering hint of musty leaves. It was only the recurrent grumble of her stomach and weakness in her limbs that defined hunger for Gretel.

Her sixth grade teacher had tasted of vanilla ice cream. Mr Whitehall gave her a brain freeze. She found it difficult to concentrate as she held her head back, pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth and covered her mouth and nose with her hands. WikiHow users voted these the most effective methods for dealing with brain freeze. She wasn’t so sure.


cheese glorious cheese

Is cheese life beyond death?
Cheese represents decomposition in edible form. Milk, which represents the sustenance of life for calves, is the main raw material for cheese. Bacteria which already exist within the natural environment of a farm at least, if not in a modern scrubbed home then interact with this sitting milk. Time plus milk plus bacteria will add up to a delicious product.
Does eating cheese take us closer to death and life beyond death?
What cheese would I like to be reincarnated as? Currently I really like the fresh, lemony goats cheese rounds about 120g in weight, white and off white in colour and though classified as a semi-soft cheese, at times it can be almost runny. It’s perfect for me when it still has about one third chalky centre. Over ripe it can have quite a strong ammonia character.
Either that or Appenzeller which is a semi hard from north eastern Switzerland. It exhibits a lovely ‘stinky socks’ aroma, is straw yellow in colour and has tiny holes within its hard rind. The big pay-out is the washed rind. Different  producers use cider, wine or a herbal brine never disclosing their many years old secret recipe. Whilst I love a big chunk hacked off the block, it also makes a fabulous grilled cheese on toast.
The above linked article refers to a project whereby human bacteria was deliberately used in the creation of cheese. I was disappointed that no one apparently consumed the end product. Would I? Absolutely I would. I’d definitely eat cheese made from my own bacteria. I wonder if I’d want to know about the person who donated the bacteria or if I prefer the anonymity.
I’m not a very spiritual person but can’t help but flirt with the greater concepts of life and death and reincarnation. I usually dance around my fluid ideas regarding these when asked. Cheese is a very concrete incarnation of these big ideas.
Well that’s my excuse for my high consumption.