The god of small things and other snacks

Monday 27 August
I’m beginning to realise now why people talk and write so bloody much about food. Minimum controversy, maximum flavour. You grow it, buy it, kill it, chop it and cook it. Occasionally in that order. You can have an opinion on it that won’t get you jailed or killed (unless you live in Sydney and eschew dude food). I mean, what I’d really like to blog about is the evangelical type my husband and were bailed up by at a restaurant launch in Nowra last Saturday.

Nowra – pearl of the near South Coast. But perhaps not, I hear you murmur, gentle blog follower, the most promising of environs for a restaurant opening; nor, indeed, the most promising of destinations in which to avoid a Christian Democrat.

But you’d be wrong – on the first count anyway. The restaurant, Wharf Rd, proved to be a riverbank paradise of blond wood, white paintwork and witty details, with an interesting enough modern menu (local produce: tick; home-cured charcuterie made from local produce: tick; Himalayan salt brick curing cabinet with local produce arranged à la Damien Hirst in front of a picture window in the private dining room: tick) at a reasonable price point. David, the chef, and his wife, Nicole, are young, entrepreneurial, clever, charming, handsome and talented, so I wasn’t in the best of moods to start with, despite the way my VW Golf TSi had held the bends at 100km/hr through Kiama. God, I love my overpriced European car.

After a couple of beers (the silver fox) and a pisco sour (moi), and several brief, cordial exchanges with people our own age but with more jewellery, my spirits lifted. The deliciously salty snacks were coming thick and fast – smoked local alpaca, who knew?

Not only that, but, with what I suspect was a canny nod towards nose-to-tail eating (something I’m more than happy for anyone else but me to do), there were even local-alpaca-skin throws draped over the white banquettes. Sitting on what you’ve just eaten. That witty detail could be one step too far.

And suddenly there he stood, his flushed face just inches from ours, only lower – silver fox and I are both taller than average – Paul, the relentlessly outgoing mayor of Shoalhaven. Paul, who, he told us at biblical-proportion length, had been given a sign by God to move from preaching to politics. Paul, whom God had also blessed with a dry, warm, firm, outgoing handshake and six children. And yes, I truly believe that these two things were related.

We bit our irreligious tongues (neither locally produced nor cured, unfortunately) and waited for divine intervention. None arrived of course – probably because neither of us believe in it – certainly not before the speeches started. So we left instead. Apparently Paul is heading to the Upper House to be with Fred Nile and his heavenly host of assorted Christian Dems and Shooters and Fishers Party cronies, leaving Nowra’s mayoral duties open to all manner of godless political opportunism. I favour a certain Joanna Gash. But not for the reason you may immediately think.

Tuesday 28 August
Writing in bed on a laptop is a new experience to me, and one I can see becoming a regular and pleasing pastime, despite the pain in my neck from a poorly positioned pillow. Watching TV hasn’t proved that fruitful a source of inspiration recently, certainly not in the way that long hours of Olympic™ dressage did. Trying to follow the conversation on a show such as The Newsroom as I write just gives me a headache, despite its occasional funny moments. Those people talk so damn fast – I can hardly make out what they’re saying. Save me – I’m sounding more and more like my mother/grandmother/aunt/the lady who mutters to herself on the escalator at Westfield. I don’t understand the words to songs anymore either. But fortuitously, I am a rather fine whistler. So I just whistle along to everything. Even to Frank Ocean. Kill. Me. Now.

Wednesday 29 August
So… tapas – a collection of snacky stuff that you eat while you’re drinking. Great idea and, in a perfect world – say, San Sebastian – they make perfect sense. On a corner of Oxford Street in Darlinghurst, not so much, no matter how charming the shaggy-haired, bristle-chinned ex-derivative-trader-owner. A five-centimetre square of over-seasoned potato omelette served on a piece of slate does not a tortilla make. Certainly not when shared among three hungry women after a hard day at the coalface drilling down, moving forward and working smart. Give it up now, boys, put the chef out of his misery and go back to stripping businesses’ assets instead of customers’ wallets. No amount of smouldering eye contact will lure us back.

Snow eggs and sports shoes

Sunday 19 August

The MasterChef All Stars finale is on and I have had strict instructions from my colleagues to ‘STAY OFF FACEBOOK – remember how you destroyed the lives of half a continent last time’. So I am. I will not reveal the winner to anyone beyond these four walls and, as my silver fox of a husband is guaranteed to be asleep before the BIG REVEAL, it will remain mine and the dog’s secret until dawn’s blue light.

Damn that MasterChef pause and all it portends. I’ve done that pre-burning-MasterChef-logo pause (it took three takes) and it is no mean feat, my friends. Those judges aren’t just a pretty face and highly developed palate.  Yes, I, too, have had ‘my day in the sunshine’, as ABC Grandstand’s own Sporty Spice, David Morrow, put it recently about some Olympian or other. In fact, so effective was I in my sunshine-drenched rendition of celebrity-guest-judge-magazine-editor-bitch-from-hell, apparently, that I ‘made Absolutely Fabulous look like reality TV’, according to one of the reader comments on the Sydney Morning Herald recap the following day. That’ll do me. Something to tell my imaginary grandchildren one day.

Peter Gilmore and his snow egg have arrived. But this time it’s different. Jackfruit is the hero of the dish. A masterstroke of pure, evil genius – but nothing that all-round good guy Callum can’t cope with. Or Chris for that matter. See? I didn’t give anything away.

But far more important is this weekend’s other breaking news. It seems that I’ve been wearing the wrong walking shoes. Or at least hadn’t realised that the shoes I have been wearing were simply not up to the job. ASICS has released its Gel-Cardio Zip – ‘a walking shoe designed to help you forget your feet, love mornings, solve work issues, stay healthy, plan holidays, chat with your dog, and much more besides’. I had no idea this was possible. The only one of these I’ve ever managed is chatting with my dog – sometimes even when she’s walking with me. Not only that, but it also seems that you can’t do any of these things if you’re a runner, as ‘ASICS specialist walking shoes are designed different to [sic] our running shoes’. Someone in the copywriting department didn’t wear their Gel-Cardio Zips before they coughed up that particular sentence, did they…

An optimistic baker

I’ve been working in food publishing for more than 15 years, but I still don’t own two 20cm baking pans. I have one, and a slightly larger one. Yet despite this failing, I will, very occasionally, throw myself with abandon into the act of cake-making. Before I start, I am positively tipsy with anticipation – of the warm waft of spices and sugar filling the house, the seductive alchemy of raising agents, and the heady steam that fogs my glasses as I open the oven door too soon – always too soon.

So last Sunday I cranked up FBI on the radio and baked a cake – not, I hasten to add, merely as an excuse to regale you, step-by-floury-step, with the joys and perils of my culinary journey, aided by a series of very-close-up digital photographs. I baked it for a colleague’s birthday. A colleague’s birthday whose other colleagues are skilled culinary professionals who make cakes very frequently and very well. For one with such a highly developed capacity for projecting catastrophe onto any situation, my tendency to launch blithely off the edge of another precipice remains resolutely intact.

And, despite having read so many, many, many recipes over the course of my working life, surprisingly few have stuck (other than to the section underneath the kitchen bench you can’t reach without renovating). Thus, I do not have a signature cake that I can rustle up from memory; no cloud-light, family-heirloom sponge to fall back on when friends drop round in that unexpected way they so often do in women’s magazines. I don’t even have a signature scone. I just have a signature – and if I could actually use this damn WordPress technology, I would scan it in and add it to the end of my posts in an ironic Luddite flourish.

The cake turned out extremely well considering its handicaps – the wrong size pan, for one, and my still-tentative relationship with our one-year-old oven and its myriad settings. It took me the better part of the day, excluding cleaning the kitchen and myself afterwards. It was a Jamie Oliver coffee and walnut cake – a pukka balance of sugar, butter, coffee and walnut, plus a satisfactorily high ratio of filling. As usual, I licked the bowl, which is the only reason, as far as I’m concerned, for making a cake in the first place. I couldn’t get to sleep – so the balance was definitely weighted in the coffee’s favour.

At this point, if I were a genuine, passionate food blogger, I’d upload a photo of the cake, but that’s another technical conundrum I’m still grappling with. Be assured, though, that were all my geeky planets to miraculously align and I could find the key to unlock the mysteries of the WordPress universe, the image I would upload would be larger than life and poorly lit. Just as it should be.

Playing with my widgets, and other double entendres

I’ve been fiddling with my blog for days – still parked on the sofa in front of those frothing horses until the bitter bloody end of the dressage, watching young, toothy Charlotte Something win gold for GBR to a soundtrack of Live and Let Die, Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem (never let it be said that parochialism doesn’t win points on the board, even in a country that’s not Australia). One thing you can deduce from watching a competition like this is that people who do dressage probably can’t dance, and if they do, they’d do it with the white man’s overbite (thank you Billy Crystal) to ELO. Or maybe it would be the white man’s overbit. Oh never mind.

Anyway – I’m having trouble with my widgets. (Fiddling with my blog? Trouble with my widgets? I’ve turned into Benny Hill.) I’ve lost a sizeable chunk of my life this week faffing around on the Dashboard . The only writing I’ve managed is a censoring of my own work.

Yes, in order to stay on message with Plan B, I have tempered my language un petit peu to ensure I don’t alienate any multinational corporations when I approach them with a Monetise This sponsorship package. (Ha! And you thought I’d learned nothing from my years dangling on the lower rungs of the publishing ladder, didn’t you.)

It also means I don’t have to tick the ‘R’ box in my Dashboard settings. Someone might take this as a porn site. Hmm… Fifty Shades of Oy Vey. Smack me with the salt beef, Shlomo.

This week has not been one of particular joy. Suffice to say, it has comprised a woman who should go to bed at a decent hour or learn how to use her laptop properly, her crumbling mother and the ignominies of illness. Well, at least we can still laugh about it. Actually, we do laugh quite a lot – but not about it so much.

So, moving right along to the good bits. The first, a literary dinner with a briefly-lost-but-now-happily-refound friend at Christine Manfield’s restaurant, Universal, where a favourite author of mine, Charlotte Wood, did a bit of reading, and Christine and Alex Herbert did a bit of cooking. All extremely well. Although I was happy to pass on the chocolate hedgehog – even if it was accompanied by the wonderful story that Charlotte read from her book, Love and Hunger, which wove said choc slice into its denoument (not literally wove, obviously; literarily).

Charlotte brings out the worst in me. Writer envy, interesting-holiday envy, colourful-country-upbringing envy and blog envy. Her widgets seem in perfect order.

The other good bit this week? Our dog has spectacularly healthy ear canals, according to Simon the vet. This is quite unusual in a Labrador. Who knew? But it may be enough to qualify me as a doggy day-care practitioner, should Plan B not come to fruition.

and so it continues…

Sunday 22 July

Today I decided that, such was my inertia, it was the right time to embark on the recounting of a life mostly unremarkable. And perhaps that’s a good thing, as everyone else has written about their remarkable ones and I have nothing worthwhile to add.

Email from my mother this morning. Her weight’s gone up to 65 kilos. Quel horreur! She has ovarian cancer and has just completed her sixteenth week of chemo – and she’s worried about putting on weight. My primary concern is how bad I’d look if I lost my hair – and that I weigh the same as her. While she wears a wig when she goes out, my mother’s lightly tufted head is perfectly symmetrical without it – she calls herself “emu”. She has bone structure. I don’t. I will be very ugly indeed if I get cancer. This is my greatest fear, apart from being old and mad and found flashing in a public place… And heights.

Last night, the tall, silver-haired person who, in somebody else’s script, is my really excellent roommate, our dog and I went to our friends’ house to watch the rugby. We ate tandoori chicken with salad in rolls and watched the Reds get hammered by the Sharks, helped by a referee from Durban. This didn’t seem right somehow, and everyone swore a lot. Even I, who has little enough interest in the Super whatever-number-it-is-now competition or any other sport, could see the organiser’s folly. And the rolls weren’t much cop either.

Today I scraped enough coffee together to make a decent-enough soy flat white. I forgot to buy coffee beans yesterday (and interdental brushes). This was the sum of my Saturday shopping – teeth get a lot more attention after you hit 50. No wonder we don’t have sex – by the time we’ve scraped dinner out of every cavity, our really excellent roommate has fallen asleep on the sofa.

I don’t like milk in coffee anymore; I really do prefer soy in coffee – so sue me. I have high cholesterol and a strong sense of foreboding, which is alleviated slightly by the comforting notion instilled by my doctor that it’s the ‘good cholesterol’ that’s bumping up my total. I originally thought it was the soy milk, but it turns out my foreboding is hereditary.

I’m 56 years old, but because I didn’t have children, I have absolutely no concept of how old I appear to those younger than me. Pretty old I think. I work – and occasionally socialise – with women who could be my grown-up children – some of whom have children who could be my grandchildren. I used to be a fag hag, but now I’m a youth hag.

I listen to young people’s music – but only because my husband listens to Triple J and reads all the music reviews in the weekend papers (not on an iPad either; in the actual papers) and is one of only five people in Australia who still buy CDs. At a shop. He’s also one of the five or so people who buy a newspaper every day. At a shop. I like young people’s music – and am grateful for Stu’s diligence; I also like old people’s music (and am somewhat disturbed that so many young people do, too).

My lack of self-awareness is entirely another matter. A couple of days ago, a man of 20 something, whom I was working with on a photo shoot (no, this is not going to get interesting), laughed as I was apologising about being so slow putting his number into my iPhone (and neither is that), saying his parents were hopeless at technology, too. I’m ashamed to say I was shocked. His parents?

I made a slow-roast leg of lamb today. I bought it in Coles. My only redemption may come from the fact that it was organic and had a slightly more decent life than some, although I doubt it.

I did all my shopping in Coles yesterday with my mother. She likes shopping – she admits she’s shallow. I am too – but I don’t admit it. I don’t admit to being a foodie either, even though I work in food publishing and have done since most of my colleagues were at day care.

The lamb was in the oven for seven hours – on the ‘eco’ setting, for what it’s worth. It was lemony and herby and oily and therefore delicious, but hasn’t made me feel any less guilty about doing nothing all day. Or my husband more inclined to thank me for making him dinner. Apart from walking the dog, then slumping on a chair with my feet on the coffee table watching Ronin and a compellingly awful Nordic gore-fest starring Antonio Banderas as a devout muslim. Those seven or so hours will never be retrieved. And, despite the glowering presence of my mother’s terminal illness and my fruitless attempts at positivity in her company (and lapses into guilty irritation), I am no closer to living my own life as if every day were my last. So if I don’t get back to you, it was.

Monday 23 July

I was out walking the dog at ten past six this morning. I love that stillness as dawn breaks and swear every time I happen upon it that I’ll do it every day. I’m like a goldfish – seeing things afresh every five seconds (or in the case of my early rising, every couple of weeks or so). We’ve decided the dog doesn’t actually get excited about going for a walk – it’s just another opportunity to forage for food. Not food as we know it. Cat poo. She’s a Labrador.

My friend and partner in word crimes, Danielle, and I went out to lunch today with a PR whom I like (and am weirdly fascinated by). This is rare – liking a PR, I mean; not my being weirdly fascinated by people. I get a bit obsessive about people I like. But not axe-murderer obsessive. Not yet. Danielle’s very funny and the best divider-up of food I know. We were at a brasserie called Brass that serves classic French food and classic Italian food, but thankfully not mixed together. I wish I’d not been working – I’d have had a whole cheese soufflé to myself. But my arteries are thanking me now.

Danielle has a daughter so charming I want to eat her. She’s 18 months old. Someone in a café once thought she was my grandchild. I was shocked, but not as much as my mother, who was there with us.

There’s already a theme developing here and it’s only the second bloody day of this journal.

Tuesday 24 July

Today I discovered a talent that I’d not realised I had. I type much faster and more accurately if I look away from my computer screen and keyboard. Matt Preston was dictating his copy to me. This is not as unusual as you might think. He also works in food publishing.

This means that I can type with my eyes closed, or better still, watch telly while I write. Which is what I do most nights. Watch telly. ‘Never Mind the Buzzcocks’ is on. I’ve no idea who anyone is on the panel, except for Katherine Tate. I thought “Am I bovvered?” was pretty funny the first time round.

Wednesday 25 July

I’m waiting for the finale of MasterChef to start. There’s a lamb ragù sitting on the stove – leftovers from the very roast lamb we had on my literary-career-ground-breaking Sunday. Ra-bloody-gù. What it actually comprises is a whole lot of chopped-up, already-cooked lamb chucked in with some fried onions and garlic, a large slop of red wine and a jar of Barilla Arrabbiata sauce. So, twice-cooked lamb, then. The wine’s a secret present from my boss – pinot noir from Central Otago. Tops! I’ll be drinking a glass of it while I watch the telly and my husband sulks because he detests MasterChef. Sigh… I am not a foodie. Not really. MasterChef is just what I do.

It’s a secret present, because she only bought them for a couple of us in the office. We are the chosen people. Nice.

Today my mum and I saw a whale (or possibly whales) just off the coast at south Bondi. As usual I didn’t have a telephoto lens handy. But we saw the spout and the traces of a back, my pain- and drug-raddled mother and me, after a toasted sandwich overlooking Icebergs pool. Massive swells and foaming waves sprayed our sunglasses with salt. We woz rapt, as she would write if she were texting me.

As I was cutting up the at-that-stage-only-once-cooked lamb, Stu commented on our Labrador’s relentless pursuit of the inedible, as she stared at my fingers flicking gobs of white fat into the bin, drooling gently. “They are the perfect species for farming foie gras without animal suffering – they’d love being force-fed. In fact they wouldn’t even consider it force-feeding,” he said. I think he may have finally hit on that money-spinner he’s been looking for. Huzzah! We start puppy farming on the morrow.

Thursday 26 July

Andy won. Now perhaps everyone can just get on with their lives. Although perhaps not now I’ve ruined those of the squillions of MasterChef fans watching in South Australia and WA by posting congratulations to him on our official Facebook page too soon. Once again, I see my life flashing before my eyes. This may be the end of my current career. But I have a feeling I won’t be snapped up for a role on any social-media-sodding-platform any time soon.

Friday 27 July

I’m going to try my hand at smoking this weekend. Not smoking myself per se (though I might taste quite nice with some roasted beetroot and a rocket salad). Smoking something – salmon maybe, or lamb. My other smoking days are over, inhaling and everything. Wish Joan as Policewoman had been around when I was 18 or 25 or 32 or 40. Still, inhaling to the Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye, The Beatles and Steely Dan (may I burst into flames for my sins) wasn’t so bad. Now I just bake the occasional (mental) health bar. This way I get the nuts and seeds that my Facebook ad panel insists my rapidly ageing body needs, and can smile about it half an hour later…

I digress. I’ve brought this electric smoker home from the office to try out, to see if an unremarkable foodie such as moi could work it out and get a result. I am already panicking about it. I will probably lose sleep over it. I lose sleep over pretty much everything. The instruction manual has already pissed me off. There’s a sentence using ‘it’s’ instead of ‘its’. How can I trust it?

Ah, Joan, you sweet thing, you, crooning through the subwoofer. I know these technical terms – subwoofer and such like – because my husband knows these things… He’s technically astounding – technically in the sense of adept at matters technological rather than him perhaps being not, technically, that astounding.

Uncanny – I have a new laptop that seems to know my eyesight is failing. For no reason I can fathom, my font has suddenly become 60 points. Stu would know why.

Red is on. Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren – how good does it get on a Friday night? Successful old people wielding guns. Especially after reheated Tuesday night’s damn ragù with penne (thrice-cooked lamb – can you do that?). I did cut up some mixed tomatoes (Coles calls them ‘heirloom’) and toss them with some balsamic and olive oil and salt and pepper as a little side salad. Quite nice, actually.

Friday nights… When I first met my husband, I was a (very) mature student and used to clean a bunch of his friends’ house on Friday afternoons. Then everyone would arrive home from work, invite a bunch of other friends around and we’d wreck “all that good work”. To Soul II Soul, mostly. The late eighties – good times.

Actually, the early eighties were pretty good times, too.

Probably my worst decade was the seventies. But even that was okay.

Saturday 28 July

The fashion page in The Sydney Morning Herald’s ‘Good Weekend’ section features an Adidas by Stella McCartney skipping rope ($50). I can now die happy.

Tuesday 31 July

My, how time flies when you’ve a head full of snot.  I’ve spent the past two days drinking my body weight in fluids and it not making the blindest bit of difference. Neither did the paracetamol. And neither will a gazillion milligrams of vitamin C – they will just give you wind, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Beer is the answer to all ills, according to my husband, but it’s also the question, so it doesn’t count.

So – smoking. The machine worked amazingly efficiently: it turned a nice fillet of salmon into something that tasted like a fireman’s uniform after a bad summer in Sydney’s Royal National Park; raw almonds into Marlboro almonds; and tomatoes into something so revolting even the dog wouldn’t touch them. The smoker is simple to use, cleans up a treat and packs away into a box only slightly larger than our spare room. Perfect. I shall take it back to work for others to try. I shall not take up smoking again. That’s another thing off my bucket list.

One good thing about being sick is that you have no choice but to slump, slack-jawed, tissues shoved up your nose, watching TV during the day. Great – the London Olympics™ is on at the moment. When you’re sick, you watch anything. That’s the only time I watch cricket. I need to have the flu at the very least. Or a massive hangover (and as I don’t drink enough, flu it is, then). So I watched two days’ worth of dressage. Those horses are bloody gorgeous. They’re my favourite animal (humans included). But what really hooked me in was Lucinda Green’s commentary. I spent a fair wack of my younger years around horsey people in the UK and, I freely admit that the most of my fun I owe it to Horse & Hound – sorry, an old slogan got caught in my throat – her posh, horsey chortling soothed me like no throat lozenge could. I want to own a horse before I die. And an elephant. I also watched Water for Elephants yesterday.

In fact, before I die I’d rather like to own an animal sanctuary, but that would mean living in the country and Australian countryside scares the living daylights out of me. So much venom – and that’s just the rednecks. I might have to move to New Zealand. Wetas are harmless. Although the accent not so much. Dartmoor it is then. Perhaps Lucinda would take me in.