St John Restaurant

We’re early so we decide to have a little wander around Smithfield before arriving at the restaurant. We pass door upon door of generic coffee shops and take-away food outlet close to the station. An impressive, expansive building comes into sight – the wholesale meat market. Since the 10th century, first a livestock then a meat market has occupied this particular site. Between the bustle of the growing city and the ease of access to farms, Smithfield was well-positioned for this charge. It is suitably impressive with its pale stone arches, red brick infill and large cast iron and glass roof.

It’s getting on to noon so the market is closing as it’s been open since 4am. Time for the workers to knock off and have a full English and a pint. Slabs of gammon, thick fingers of sausage and a puddle of beans are washed down by hand-pulled cask ale. The Fox and Anchor has been serving the market porters for hundreds of years from 7am each morning.

We pop our heads into The Charterhouse, which is a school, almshouse and former priory. A small complex of historic buildings, part of it is now open for the public to add to the thousands of feet that have walked over the same ground. London’s like that though. Thin ribbons of roads weave between modern office buildings and public ale houses hundreds of years old. There’s no imposed grid system taming the streets with curbs and pavement here. It’s easy to imagine that you’re walking the same paths that thousands of others have over many, many years.

Eventually, we circle round on the main road back to where we need to be. Scaffolding and bright orange bollards are a common sight as much construction is underway. Cranes dot the skyline. There’s no point decrying that ‘they’re ruining the city’ as cities are dynamic places. They stretch their limbs, reconfiguring to meet new demands. People ebb and flow as industry, commerce and residential factors change. Cities have been, and will always, remain living organisms.

‘It should somewhere here.’ Steve pauses and holds his phone square in front of him. I pull up and step close to him, to allow the free flow of lunch-time pedestrian traffic. In doing so, I now see the simple black font (possibly Times New Roman) announcing our destination.

St. JOHN Bar & Restaurant

‘It is,’ I say and point over his shoulder. ‘I know we’re early but let’s just go in.’ We’re still half an hour early but I’m too excited to wait.

‘Just a minute.’ Steve turns me 90 degrees to my left and there just a metre or two away is the man himself. I put my hand over my mouth then scramble for my phone. I take a couple of photos of the food menu and wine menu as cover before nonchalantly snapping a couple of him.

Fergus Henderson is legendary in culinary circles. I see Fergus as the progenitor of a new approach to British cooking. In the mid-90s, he opened St John restaurant with Trevor Gulliver, the wine half of the partnership. And in 1999, the untrained cook published his first cookery book Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking. His bold approach to meat consumption quickly became a classic amongst industry and public alike.

So here we are, metres from a legend outside his original restaurant. It’s like seeing Father Christmas himself, in a bright navy pinstripe suit, white shirt, red socks, brown brogues with walking cane in hand. Steve tugs at my shirt and we walk through the portico and into the bar and bakery area. A staff member directs us up the short, black metal staircase which leads into the dining room.

To describe the interior as pared down is an understatement: no art hangs on its white-washed walls; a simple coat rack runs along the walls at picture-rail height; paper over white table cloths, dark brown stained chairs and painted, worn floorboards; basic salt and pepper grinders play floral arrangement relief on the tables.

A tall, lithe waiter soon arrives at our table with menus in hand. He smiles as he greets us and hands us the menus. I find myself staring at the few grey hairs in his beard. He announces a couple of specials for the day, then leaves us to peruse our options. Deciding on what to order is always a process of negotiation with us. I am looking for a balance of dishes with different proteins and no doubling up of ingredients. Sadly, I can’t stomach neither horseradish nor hot mustard so those options are immediately ruled out.

A metal basket of breads is brought to our table with a slab of butter. Wide slices from both brown and white cob loaves are laid out, their beauty self-evident. It’s a confident place that offers such simple things to begin with. Chewy, slightly tangy inner crumb with a satisfying exterior crunch is only achieved with years of sourdough practice. The demand for St John’s bread has been so strong that they’ve opened a separate bakery in one of the London markets. The options are limited – white, brown, light rye or fruit.

I want to order us wine but I have little frame of reference for the mainly French offerings on the wine list so I’m going to need help. Jean-Patrick, our waiter, offers assistance. ‘Perhaps if I know what you’re eating then I can suggest something to go with it.’

‘Well, I was thinking something white or pink. I work in a winery region at home in Australia so I’m familiar with those styles but I don’t really know French wine that well.’

‘Why don’t I bring you a sample of both our whites?’ Two small footed glasses are delivered with generous amounts of wine for us both to taste. We settle on the 2017 Languedoc blanc, plenty of fruit without being sweet, and a small amount of oak.

Our order is taken and the three starters are quick to arrive. The first plate holds two pools of thick, buttery yellow mayonnaise. Plump anchovy fillets and two soft poached eggs sit proudly atop. Tiny capers and a bunch of baby cress finish off the plate. The second plate has a mound of potted hare, thick shreds of meat obvious, with celeriac remoulade and one fat pickled walnut. The final plate presents a meaty fillet of house-smoked eel with cucumber and dill tossed in a hot mustard dressing. We decide against the signature dish of roast bone marrow and parsley salad as we had an excellent example of it for breakfast the day prior.

For the main course, we’re sharing devilled kidneys. Six portly kidneys nestle together on a thin slice of toast. The whole lot is bathed in a piquant gravy, featuring a generous hand of Worcestershire sauce. It’s sweet and vinegary and sour and rich all at once. In a similar vein, the Welsh rarebit is all crispy, cheesy goodness. To assuage any possible guilt, I also order a vegetable side dish. Thick green ribbons of cabbage have been lightly steamed and tossed with lashings of butter, salt and pepper.

I’m done. Only a few ribbons of cabbage and a swirl of gravy remain. The wine is finished and my elasticated outfit is proving a wise choice. Just one more mouthful of cabbage perhaps. I’ve never tasted cabbage so sweet and unctuous. That’s it. No more.

‘Would you like to see the dessert list?’ Jean-Patrick suggests as he clears the plates.

’No, I’m all good,’ I say.

‘I already know what I’m having – Eccles cake.’ Steve’s grinning like a small child. ‘You sure you don’t want a glass of something sweet, my sweet? How about a sloe gin?’

I cave swiftly. ‘Alright. Wouldn’t want you eating alone.’

The dessert arrives quickly. It’s a rotund shiny pastry sitting next to a thin, triangular slice of Lancashire cheese. No more and no less. The food on the plates speaks for itself. There’s no garnish, no flurry, no attempt to disguise the food for anything other than it is. I sit back into my chair, interlocked hands resting on stomach and look around the unadorned dining room. I sip my sweet, berry-infused gin while Steve picks up the currants that fall out onto the plate. ‘Well, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.’

‘Glad to hear it, love.’

Friday 31st August NYC

2pm

After less fuss than it could have been, Simone and Richard are packed and ready to leave. It takes a couple of trips in the lift to get all the bags down to the lobby so I wait downstairs and mind the bags. I finger the door key in my pocket. With damp eyes, she steps from the lift with a dog in her arms.

‘I had to say goodbye,’ she explains. The white fluffy dog is clearly missing the sobriety of the moment as it moves around in her arms. The doorman wedges open the door and starts to roll the bags out to the curb. I take the smaller ones and roll them out also. Richard requests an Uber and stands by the curb looking up the street towards the Queensboro bridge. We corral the bags to take up less pavement space. A light breeze is keeping the morning cool and my sister wipes her eyes.

Minutes later a dark sedan pulls up and the driver eyeballs the amount of luggage. He pops the boot open and starts the game of Tetris that is packing the bags into the car. Cars start to bank up behind and the horns start. No one rushes and eventually the cars manoeuvre into the next lane and around.

‘You’re a real New Yorker now,’ I say. Last hugs, tight and held, and they’re in the car. I wait til they pull out into traffic before I turn to go inside. I pat the outside of my pocket to feel the key safely tucked inside. The streets are quieter this morning. It’s a Friday at the start of Labor Day weekend, the last hurrah of Summer. Richard’s favourite coffee spot two doors along is even closed. I turn, enter the lobby and go to wait for the elevator. Well, the one that is working anyway. The superintendent told me there’s little chance of getting a repair man out this weekend.

Back upstairs in the apartment, I take stock. I stack the dishwasher and open the fridge to see what might be consumed in the next 24 hours before I leave and what should be thrown out. My suitcase is mostly packed. The long-sleeve tops and cardigans haven’t even made it out of their packing cells since I arrived. I choose loose denim trousers, a black singlet and a black top. With a bit of make-up and some bling, I’m ready to hit the town. Well, a small section of it anyway.

I grab the bag with some of Richard’s leftover clothes on my way out the door. I’m heading for the goodwill store on 62nd and 1st. I’m determined not to get my phone to look at the map. Most of the pedestrians seem to be tourists this morning and I’m even able to give directions to one. Feeling quite chuffed, I saunter along and jay-walk with more confidence.

It’s mid afternoon when I make it to The Jeffrey. It’s a bar I’ve walked past many times and this time I’m going in. The front bar is buzzing and I’m grateful to arrive before it gets too busy. I locate an empty seat away from the door and swiftly the bar staff hand me a drinks menu. I open it up and instantly regret not bringing my glasses.

‘What can I get you?’ The pretty blond barmaid asks me.

‘I forgot my glasses so I’ll have to ask you for some recommendations.’

‘Here, borrow mine.’ The woman next to me hands me hers.

‘Oh, that’s very kind. Thank you.’ The prescription is so strong that I can’t make anything out. Meanwhile, the barmaid asks, ‘what kind of beer do you like?’

I lower the glasses.

‘All kinds. I’d like to try something local-ish. Something hoppy?’

While I’m poured a couple of tasters, I hand the glasses back to my neighbour. She reminds me of someone though I can’t place who. Tight grey curls ring her round, warm face. A bunch of cellophane wrapped flowers sit on the bar in front of her next to a glass of prosecco.

‘I’m Karen,’ (say this in your head long and drawn out). I introduce myself. She smiles and nods. ‘Ah, I recognise that accent. A coloniser.’

‘A coloniser?’ What am I missing here?

‘I’m from Jamaica. One of Britain’s colonies.’ She laughs and smiles and takes another swig of her drink.

‘Oh, no. I’m not a coloniser. I’m Australian. I’m a fellow colonist,’ I explain and take a gulp of my cold beer.

Friday 31st August – New York City

Friday 31st August

9.33am

Two loads of washing done and currently tumbling away in the dryer downstairs in the basement laundry. $2.00 a wash and $1.80 per 30 minutes drying. Apart from setting the alarm to remind oneself to go get the stuff, I reckon I could get used to this system. Though it needs to be said that the laundry is insufferably hot and stuffy in Summer, which it currently is here.

My sister and her partner are flying home to Australia today. Luggage is in various stages of being packed. Bags of rubbish, recycling and donating sit in different parts of the apartment. US friends came over this morning to comb through accumulated kitchen items for the taking. Bottles of olive oil, hardly-touched spice packets and half-empty packets of nuts made it into their grocery bags. Stacks of baking accoutrements remain on the kitchen bench while plastic storage containers were snaffled up.

New York City is such a transient place that this ritual is common as people move to and from the metropolis. These friends moved from Texas a year ago. Others I met have been here much longer, though it seems that everyone came from somewhere else first. Six months here was enough for Simone to feel the need to bake. This is one sign she isn’t a native New Yorker, whose kitchen is usually just a place to dish up take-out meals.

Preparing your own food is an act of self-determination. How thick I cut the bread? To butter it or not? How long I cook the eggs for? – these are all small decisions that we make each day according to own individual desires. While there’s no denying that there’s a certain freedom in eating out, it is something that I rapidly tire of. Maybe I don’t want to get dressed to go out and search for food. (In place of ‘get dressed’, feel free to substitute ‘put a bra on’ as essentially that’s what I’m saying.) Even answering the door to a food delivery can be more than I’m up for at times. Other times, I’m excited to find a café or restaurant where I can prop by myself, chat with the wait staff or read a book. Taking my time to choose a meal, the appropriate drink to go with it and savour the luxury of the whole experience.

When I prepare food for myself, I don’t have to consider that someone else may want some of the perfectly ripe cheese I bought. I can stand at the bench and pop one slice of jamon on my mouth for every piece that makes it to the plate. I can butter the thick slice of crusty bread before liberally sprinkling salt crystals over it. And finally, no one judges me for over-filling my wine glass which saves me a return trip to the fridge in the middle of my meal, thus rendering my food vulnerable to my cats.

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.

ELKTON, OR TO BEND, OR – TUESDAY 23RD AUGUST – part 2

Eager to get some more miles on the odometer, we head out of town loosely following the river into the mountains ahead. The appropriately named Lookout Point Lake accompanies us along Willamette Highway for so long, I become blasé to its beauty. At Oakridge, we stop in a car park of a large supermarket to stretch our legs, buy some water and road snacks. Road snacks are portable, easy to eat treats that you normally don’t buy. Scouring the shelves of the remote supermarket, we pick up candies, cookies, jerky and sweet iced tea. The carpark at Ray’s Food Place in Mountain View Plaza has incredible views of the mountains opposite. Leaning against the car, I start in on a jumbo bag of abnormally bright red Twizzlers. This chewy, strawberry-flavoured sweet is hitting the spot.‘Hey. Guess what is just up in the street behind here?’

‘A brewery bar?’ I posit. Naturally, I’m correct. I’m not convinced that this was a random stop for some blood sugar adjustment. Turfing the open packet onto the back seat, I climb back in for the quick trip to Brewers Union Local 180.

He pulls the car in at an angle to the curb, three mountain bikes parked in the bay next to us. We’ve passed a few intrepid cyclists on this section of our road trip and it is a feat I can’t begin to fathom. Tight corners, oversized RVs and too many miles between towns for a fair-weather cyclist like me to contemplate.

Here in the Umpqua National Forest, Oregon is a little piece of Steve’s motherland. Cosy armchairs, beers from hand-pumped kegs at cellar temperature and shelves of books and games. Paper coasters decorate the bar overhang and twinkling fairy lights hang in garlands below. I settle into a wingback chair by the front window and pull out my phone to take advantage of the free wifi.

‘Food was overcooked and the beer was warm’ reads one review. Just like home then?’ I ask Steve and take a sip of the amber nectar he has just returned with.

‘Umm, you’ve got a little –‘ pointing to the creamy foam on my top lip. I take a bigger swill before wiping the back of my hand across my mouth. ‘Apparently, the owner spent some years in the UK learning how to make traditional English ales.’ He informs me cocking his head towards the barman.‘Time well spent, I reckon.’

Placing the phone down on the table in front, I get up to explore the maps which line the walls. Detail cartography outlines the forest trails and the contours of the inclines. A well-designed map is the perfect blend of art and mathematics. ‘Where to from here?’

‘I’m hoping we will be in Bend by about – oh, let’s say 4.30,’ he answers after consulting the oracle in hand. ‘There is a place along the way I’d like to stop in at. Salt Creek Falls. Supposed to be pretty.’

‘Okay, if you like.’

Pulling into Northwest Riverside Boulevard in Old Bend is like pulling up in any suburban street. A young man only wearing shorts is washing his car in the driveway. Two kids attempt to take a dog for a walk, holding onto the leash with all their might. A supermarket delivery van pulls up and a woman unloads bags of groceries. We leave our car and make our way to the front door just as our hosts walk down the path.

‘Hi there. I’m Mandy. This is Steve.’ I gesture hoping it’s all rather obvious.

‘Oh great. I’m Bev and this is Stan. We were just about to head out so fabulous timing.’

‘Sorry, we had hoped to be a bit earlier but it’s tricky to judge how long things take sometimes,’ Steve apologises as is his English nature.

After a quick tour of the unit, we head back to the car to collect our bags.

Bev and Stan are loading up their car with what appears to be camping equipment.

‘Are you guys going camping?’ I ask, now noticing their outdoorsy clothing. Practical hiking clothing always has a particular look – slim cut, non-chafing breathable fibres, colours not found in nature.

‘Oh yeah, Bev and I love to hike. We go deep into the forest. There are some great day hikes around here if you want some suggestions. We love the outdoors. Whitewater rafting, skiing, mountain biking, bear wrestling.’ I may have tuned out there at the end so I can’t verify that he actually said bear wrestling. ‘If you guys want to go tubing on the river, we can lend you some tubes,’ Bev pipes in

Shaking my head a little too violently, ‘no, no, that’s okay. I think Steve has our time here planned out fairly strictly.’ I back away in case it’s contagious and go to help Steve unpack the car.

‘I think it’s time for another beer,’ I say to Steve. ‘Gotta be a bar around here somewhere.’

And so the craft beer tour of Bend, Oregon begins after a short walk over Deschutes river, passing the aptly named Mirror Pond with people adrift on inflated tyre inner tubes. First stop is Sunriver Brewing Company. Only a few years old, this slick restaurant and bar is fortunately positioned on the Main Street into town. It’s only 5.30pm and the sunbeams in the concertina windows that is the front façade. Thankfully the ebullient waitress provides chilled beverages only minutes after our arrival. The staff all wear red, yellow or green t-shirts advertising particular beers. Beer merchandise is a big thing here in America. T-shirts, singlets, caps, glasses, and even socks can announce your loyalty to a particular craft beer brand. Steve picks up a few along his journey and even I am not immune to their charms.

Menus are produced and we start the elimination process that is ordering.

‘How hungry are you?’ This is a standard question of mine to determine whether grazing or full meal is required.

‘You know me. I’ll eat.’ His standard answer doesn’t provide any assistance.

‘Okay. How about fried avocado, sriracha aioli, cumin lime sour cream, pico de gallo. I love pico de gallo.’

Rarely seen in Australia, pico de gallo is a fresh take on tomato salsa. Sprinkle salt on decent size dices of ripe juicy tomato and slices of red onion. Leave these to sit for a short while the salt draws out liquid, adding to the sauce’s natural juices. Finish with liberal handfuls of fresh coriander, finely chopped and de-seeded Serrano peppers (you want flavour but not overwhelming heat) and lime juice. It’s got to be lime juice, not lemon juice. Limes have an economy of flavour; they’re more bitter than sour and bitterness is a useful accent in many dishes. They pack a bigger acid hit than lemons. Most people reach for lemons more readily then limes. Partly, I think it’s the price factor. Lemons are substantially cheaper and are more easily grown at home. Pico de gallo, however, deserves limes.

‘Pineapple poppers as well then. Pepper-bacon wrapped pineapple, jalapeño queso fresco and a burgundy reduction. What’s queso fresco? Fresh cheese?’He answers his own question.

‘Yeah. A soft, mild cow’s milk cheese. I’m more concerned with the phrase burgundy reduction. I’ve not heard of red wine being referred to as burgundy for a long time. If the wine really is from the Bourgogne region, you wouldn’t be cooking it down into a sauce.’

Elkton, OR to Bend, OR – Tuesday 23rd August

Elkton, OR to Bend, OR – Tuesday 23rd August

A deep sleep buried under layers of feather and white linen and quieter than I am used to means that pulling myself out of slumber land requires genuine effort. Steve is sitting in bed next to me, shoulders poking out of the bedding. Phone in hand reading, he turns to face me.

‘I wondered if you ever going to wake up.’

I contemplate closing my eyes and rolling over. ‘What time is it?’

‘Nine o’clock. Want a cuppa?’

‘Always.’

I spread further out in the bed and into the warm patch vacated by his body. I feel myself sink deeper into the mattress. This is a dangerous bed. I might never get out. If not for a persistent discomfort from my bladder, we may never make it to our next destination today.

Dragging clothes on, I stumble to the cedar clad ensuite and squint at myself in the mirror on the wall under the skylight. Slightly sunburnt nose from all this sunshine even though I religiously apply SPF cream every morning. I tug at my hair with a brush grateful for a month without high levels of daily personal presentation demands. Two lipsticks, one eyeshadow and some mascara are enough make up supplies for a month holiday. I know that make up is cheaper here in the States but I’ve never been interested in that kind of thing. I have no childhood memories of putting on my mother’s make up. Like me, my mum is pretty low maintenance. No monthly manicures or facials for us. I’d rather spend that money on smothering more enjoyable like a meal out or a fabulous bottle of wine.

I manage to make it to the couch where my morning cup of tea, in the largest mug available, is waiting for me on the coffee table. Against the wall, a record player and a milk crate of vinyl records sits optimistically. The gentle sounds of wildlife outside, the very occasional passing car and Steve pottering around in the kitchen are all that I could want right now so the record player will just have to remain untouched.

An hour later we are packed up and closing the farm gate on the vineyard behind us. Each night when we arrive at our Air BnB it seems so foreign and someone else’s. Each morning, I feel I have just gotten used to the way the taps turn on, their particular creak of the floorboard near the bathroom or the heft with which you have to close the front door. Traveling is that odd combination of seeking out the unfamiliar and trying to make that fit with what you already know about the world. A curiosity about the world keeps the brain engaged and active. I can’t imagine ever being tired of new places. My parents in their seventies still travel, though the plane legs get shorter and the rest stops become more frequent. That will be Steve and I in another thirty years.

One podcast episode later, we are arriving in Eugene. A university town, Eugene hugs the Willamette River and in the late summer its established trees provide much needed shade. Fisherman’s Market is first on our list. This seafood place came too our attention due to a guilty pleasure of a tv show called Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. The name is fairly self-explanatory. A loud, brash host with white-tipped hair drives around everyday America in a red retro sports car calling in on dining establishments nominated by the show’s audience. The premise is clear. Guy is shining the spotlight on hidden gems of America’s often overlooked dining scene – the Korean restaurant in the strip mall, the fried chicken joint attached to a rest stop and the vegan taco truck at the local park. The episodes are easily consumed, not running much longer than twenty minutes and, like the meals showcased, leaves you craving more.

With the parking challenge sorted, we find ourselves inside this part seafood retail space and a eatery.

‘Guy said the Cajun crawfish pie is the way to go,’ reminds Steve as we stand both gawping up at the menu board.

‘Ummm, sure.’ It’s another extensive menu in an otherwise unassuming place. Burgers, sandwiches, pies as well as all manner of fried concoctions fill the menu. I can’t be bothered to read it all properly so am happy to be lead by Steve and Guy.

‘I’m going to have the fried snapper sandwich. Can’t go past something with bang bang sauce.’I leave him to order and step out into a patio area. Unsurprisingly, we are the only people here eating seafood burgers and pies before noon.

Minutes later, the food arrives. My pie even comes with colourful salad. Chunks of crawfish meat held together by a thick creamy sauce, even the pastry is a delight. Flakey and buttery, I lift it off to eat first with my fingers. A habit leftover from my childhood, I always eat the top of a pie first before scooping out the insides and eating the base last by itself, now stodgy from the moist filling. Don’t judge me.

The salad is fresh lettuce, crunchy cucumber pieces, wedges of juicy tomato and thick rings of red onion all capped with slices of smoked salmon just in case you needed more fish. The obligatory ranch dressing sits in a plastic cup between pie and salad. I know Steve wants to try some and I want a bite of his sandwich but neither of us want to share. It tastes too damn good. Reluctantly, we each portion off a miserly part of our meal. While he’s distracted cutting off some of his sandwich, I steal a couple of his waffle fries.

Leaning back into the wood bench, I now notice the tubs of dirty dishes against the wall by the door and the flies they are attracting. My arms touch the laminate table top and it is sticky on my skin. The sun streaming in on the back of my neck is a portent of the heat of the day to come. Steve laps up the last of the bang bang sauce with some waffle fries. Hands are wiped as best they can with the inadequate napkins provided and I’m grateful when he says, ‘Let’s blow this popsicle stand.’

Ninkasi Brewing Company is located a walkable distance that we drive in the same amount of time. A vacant lot down the street as an impromptu parking lot as we park next to a growing number of other cars. I check the fences for signs to no avail. An expansive mural of a Mother Earth figure covers the wall of an adjacent factory. Her arms opened wide, leaves in all shades of green dripping down. I step back to get a photo but can’t fit her in. I do manage to get a photo of the next fence though. Alternating in blue and red, one meter high letters spell out B-e-r-n-i-e-16. By August 2016, Bernie Sanders was no longer in the running to become the US president. Though there was no hope for Bernie, at that stage we still couldn’t imagine Donald Trump gaining office. Like Brexit before it, the 2016 US election was a shock and surprise to most people I know.

Waiting a few minutes for noon to arrive and the gates to open, we loiter on the shady footpath.

‘Poor Bernie.’

‘Huh?’

‘I said poor Bernie.’ I repeat, gesturing towards the sign on the fence.

‘Bernie was never going to win.’

‘Why’s that?’ I am genuinely curious.

‘He is too overtly socialist and that scares Americans. They like to think of themselves as democratic cause that’s all flag waving fun but socialism sounds too close to communism and that makes them uncomfortable.’

We don’t often talk about politics. It’s not that we disagree. We fundamentally have the same take of things politically. Steve is wider read on these thing than I am. I stick my head in the sand too often as I get sick of the lies that seem to get perpetuated. My grandfather taught me not to bring up politics at the dining table. It can be a volatile subject matter and in the wrong hands, test relationships to the breaking point. I’m grateful that we have similar outlooks on politics and the world. Living in close quarters with another person can be very trying at times, but sharing the same basic political views is one less arena of conflict.

The gates are opened and we file in behind several other eager beer tasters. The black tasting room, teal green wall and corrugated stainless steel tank resplendent in the sun. Entering the tasting room we walk straight to the bar while the others let their eyes adjust and get their bearings. We are old hands at this by now. I hang back and let Steve order, knowing he’s already checked these guys on social media and consulted his private beer forums.

‘Two tasting paddles, please.’

‘Anything particular you want to try?’ The bartender asks, leaning on one of the tap handles.

‘A range of your most popular. Whatever you recommend.’ We are rubbing off on each other by now. Steve loves the research as much as he loves the travel but he’s also been pleasantly surprised by allowing staff to guide our choices. After years spent in hospitality and more spent eating out, I know that effective staff know their own product inside and out.

We grab the narrow steel trays that hold our beers and exit to find a shady spot on the patio. Slabs of concrete form perching spots but we grab a small table under a marquee. I’m sure this place is shoulder to shoulder at peak times. Each beer sits in front of a well designed card advertising its brand and varietal. In the style of a graphic novel, these cards are part marketing part collectible. A light seasonal release lager, a session-able IPA, a hoppy red ale, a deliciously bitter double IPA and an oatmeal stout are my introduction to Ninkasi and I’m happy to report that I like them all. It’s almost as if I can’t remember a time that I didn’t like craft beer.

When someone tells me that they don’t like beer, I can only assume they haven’t spent enough time tasting good craft beer. In fact, I have made it a challenge in the past to convert people. Beer can be sweet, it can be dry, it can be bitter and it can be light. Beer can be almost anything. I’ve had a beer so aged that it was thick and syrupy like a fortified wine. I’ve served a lambic style beer in champagne flutes so that guests assumed it was a sparkling wine.

Slightly disappointed not to be able to stay longer, we leave our now empty paddles behind, the cards liberated as souvenirs and head back towards the car. This is another bar that we would want as a local if we lived nearby.

‘Hashtag, our new favourite place?’ I propose, not for the first time this trip.

‘Definitely.’

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

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 has 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 and I’m not boasting when I say that mine is better. 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 formal ware hire outlet 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.

From a low-slung seat a few metres away from our Air BnB yurt, I watch the sun slowly set. An earlier conversation with one of our hosts’s reveals the yurt was originally built as a staging point for the many functions, especially weddings, that take place on the Bradley Vineyard. Growing predominantly cool climate grapes, under the helm of son Tyler Bradley, Bradley Vineyards has embraced social media and Airbnb simultaneously. Ferns snuggle in to the wooden deck that rings the canvas tent. Though seated on the edge of a vineyard in view of the road, the lack of human traffic makes this place feel incredibly private.

Across the road, a dozen or so cows continue to feed on the short grass. Frogs and cicadas provide a suitably bucolic tune. Having already wandered amongst the Pinot Noir vines, picking grapes to add to our salami and cheese platter for dinner I’m content to just sit and watch the colours change around me. A full day on the road together and the odd harsh word, we are happy to sit silently in this new yet somehow familiar landscape. Gentle rolling hills, vines caressing the curves and I’m easily reminded of the Yarra Valley, an hour outside of Melbourne in which I’ve spent a lot of time.

Over the next couple of hours, we spy four satellites and one meteor. I work my way through a bottle of sweet rose from the vineyard and Steve enjoyed some new local beers. It takes a while for the cool air to sink in but we just hunker down with coats and enjoy the large clear skies and no neighbours for miles. Tomorrow will bring more driving and more local craft beers so tonight is about silence and nothing else.

San Francisco, CA – Thursday 18th August 2016 – part 2


3:56 PM

San Francisco Ferry Bldg, 1 Vallejo – San Francisco Ferry Building #6, San Francisco, CA 94111, USA

MILES 1.17

TRIP TIME 00:25:30

FARE BREAKDOWN Trip fare $10.68

Subtotal $10.68

Total $10.68

Driver – Mohamed

It’s almost 4pm by the time Uber Mohamed picks us up to drive us to 21st Amendment Brewery. Though it is far from our lunch spot, we are operating at less than full capacity after a morning on our feet. Uber has a minimum charge which in Australia is a paltry six dollars. I’m not sure what the minimum charge in the States is but I’ll pay what I need to get out of walking uphill in the sun. Our slightly more than one mile trip takes 25 minutes due to unforeseen traffic. It turns out the San Francisco Giants have a baseball game this evening a few blocks away. When it is obvious the traffic situation isn’t improving, we give up and let Uber Mohamed find his own way out of the jam. Walking the one block left to the brewery, I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised that the place was packed.

Steve has managed to snag a perch in the corner by the time I return with a Hell or High Watermelon for me and a Brew Free! Or Die IPA for him. My wheat beer comes served with a wedge of watermelon as one would expect. I was sent to the bar for drinks as he thinks my years working in hospitality have given me a better set of skills for getting service at a bar. What I lack in height is easily made up for by my assertiveness and voice projection. I’m disappointed that our drinks come in plastic cups and this won’t be the last time I think this. More and more young men in jeans and SF Giants tops and caps arrive and the place soon becomes too noisy to talk. We step out the side door and into their makeshift courtyard area. A laneway has been cordoned off and a temporary bar set up dispensing their canned brews.

In the shade thanks to the tall buildings in this technology and Web based section of the city, I button my denim jacket up feeling the chill of the afternoon. We park ourselves up against one of the collapsible bar tables that line the exterior wall. From here, we watch as more people pour into the area on foot. Cars are bumper to bumper and don’t appear to be moving. This round it’s a Blah Blah Blah double IPA and Toaster Pastry India style Red Ale alas with no toaster pastry (or Pop Tart to use the brand name) accompaniment.

‘What time do you reckon the game starts?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe 7?’I shrug my shoulders with no concept of what the time is currently anyway.

‘It’s 5.30 now. What do you want to do?’ The man with the spreadsheet asks me.

‘I don’t know but I don’t want to stay here. It’s getting too cold and I’m sick of being on my feet.’

‘If we walk away from the ball park, we can probably get away from this traffic and get an Uber.’

‘Sounds like a plan.’ I down the last of my beer and we turn tail determined to put some space between us and what seems like the rest of the San Francisco populace.

Only five minutes walk along 2nd street and under the freeway overpass leading to the Bay Bridge, the footpaths are wider and quieter. Already it seems like we are in a different part of town. I point at a sandwich board at the edge of a plaza. ‘Happy Hour. Cocktails $8. Oysters $1.’ 

‘How many oysters are too many oysters?’ I ask.

‘There’s no such thing,’ is the answer I knew I’d receive in response and I did.

Between a 24 hour fitness place and a Fed-Ex office, we find Red Dog restaurant and bar. Greeted within moments of opening the door, I have a good feeling about this place. Though we are not overly hungry having eaten only a few hours ago, I’m eager to get out of the cool breeze and sit down. I figure a cocktail and some more oysters will hit the spot until we order an Uber for home.

Passing through the busy bar section, we are seated in a quiet section by a window. Soft understated carpets, modern booth seating and thick white linen napery immediately signal a restaurant of a certain quality. A tall, slim man in a suit is soon at our table to take a drinks order. Steve chooses a Westfalia amber ale by SF local Fort Point Beer Company. I’m feeling beered out so look at the wine list for inspiration but nothing makes any connections in brain. 

Looking up I put down the list and say, ‘I would like a glass of wine but I don’t know much about American wine.’

‘Ok, what kind of wine do you like?’ he smiles and asks.

‘I like quite dry but full flavoured white wines. Something with some minerality, citrusy even. I want something American. I work in a wine region in Australia and I know Australian wines but I don’t know anything about American wines.’

Within minutes, three glasses are placed in front of me with samples for me to try. They range from dark yellow in colour through to lighter, almost clear. The same gentleman returns for my verdict.

‘How did you go?’Again those friendly eyes say that he has nothing more important to do right now.

‘They are all lovely but this one was my favourite.’ I say empty glass in hand.

He returns with the bottle and pours a generous refill.

‘If you guys are in town for a while, we should check out my other place – Local Kitchen and Bar. They’ve got a great local wine list. I can set you up to do tasting beforehand with the sommelier.’

‘Absolutely,’ Steve chips in. ‘That’d be fantastic.’

‘I’ll send someone over to take your food order.’

Over the next two hours we manage to devour devilled ham scotch egg with spicy aioli, a large plate of arugula, frisée, sliced peach, goats cheese and walnut salad and a bowl of summer squash tortellini with cherry tomatoes and toasted pine nuts. The cocktails and oysters advertised outside didn’t get a look in. Holidays sometimes seem like walking from one meal to the next. Today is one of those days. El jefe hands us his business card as we leave and informs us that he’s made our reservation for the following evening for dinner and wine tasting. 

‘It really is the people that you meet that make a place,’ I say rather obviously to Steve as we await our Uber home.