09 December, 2010

A standard drink

SG and I headed out for a mid-week local noodle fix. The venue of choice was Noodle Kingdom, but the discussion here is not about their hand-stretched specialty, nor the enormity of their serves, nor the bizarrely relative pricing of items on their menu ($11.80 for a plate of veg, $9.90 for beef and noodle soup).

No, the discussion here is on the relativity of their wine serves. To accompany our steamed beef dumplings (each of the half dozen the size of a mouse your cat would shy from) and spicy pork with fried noodles, I ordered a glass of the house red (at $22 a bottle, you can eat for two, have leftovers for lunch and get nicely tipsy for under $40) and SG a glass of the slightly pricier sav blanc.

Here's what we were served:
Luckily it was the owner of the glass on the left who was driving home.

06 December, 2010

Pope Joan

77-79 Nicholson St, Brunswick East; (03) 9388 8858

I have a new favourite breakfast.

Pope Joan opened mid-year, with an owner pedigree that ensured a smart fitout, a canny and classy menu, and the kind of publicity that generates a half-hour wait for a table on the first Saturday they were open.

The co-owners hail from Circa (Matt Wilkinson) and the Kent Hotel in Carlton (Ben Foster). They've got plenty of room to play with on site. Behind the plate-glass front, round wooden tables plus a communal table affront the prep area, with extra kitchen space at the back. To one side, a covered area offers bench seating, while down the back a garden space is filled with luminous artifical grass, reclaimed school tables and a tidy herb garden.

The menu is succinct, paying particular homage to the egg. Lunch specials are written up each day, such as a roast chicken sarnie, with stuffing, served swaddled in foil so all the warmth and aroma stays in until you're ready to eat.

That's just one example of their attention to detail when it comes to presentation. It's not just the food: waitstaff deliver water from divine, floral-printed jugs. Then there's this take on rice pudding:The creamy pudding, with not a crunchy piece of rice in sight, is studded with vanilla. Mango on top sweetens it up and stops the dish being too sickly.

I went the boiled eggs, and this is the dish that had me exclaiming with delight:
You've got two boiled goodies, buttered soldiers, herbed salt and bacon bits. Is there any flavour better than egg and salt? And what fun to put together! The only thing that could have improved it would be the egg equivalent of a 'caramel stop'. Both eggs were piping hot, so there was no chance of keeping the yolk runny for the duration.

And how much would you expect to pay for such breakfast enjoyment, replete with bespoke serving dish? It's just $9.

03 December, 2010

'The Accidental Billionaires' - Ben Mezrich

I made it 30 pages into this book. So, this is not a fully informed review, just an impression of the elements that made it impossible for me to carry on.

The Accidental Billionaires is the book on which David Fincher's movie The Social Network was based: the story of Mark Zuckerberg, his relationship with Eduardo Savarin, and the early days of Facebook.

Zuckerberg was working with the formidable Winklevoss brothers: identical twins from serious money who went on to row for America at an Olympic level. The brothers, along with a business partner, wanted to build Harvard Connection, a way of 'putting Harvard's social life online'. The brothers spent most of every day on the water, in class or asleep, and wanted a way to meet girls.

A lot of this story (as told both in the film and in what I read of the book) seems to be about girls. It's testament to Facebook's phenomenal popularity that it's hard to comprehend that the Winklevoss' idea was actually a groundbreaking one, so embedded is what they propose in our current interactions. The flaw in their original idea for me (other than the fact Zuckerberg ended up taking the idea, expanding it and releasing Facebook), was that it wasn't going to increase the time they had available to socialise, at least face to face. Instead they were going to network online, and maintain their schedule of six hours of rowing and as many of classes each day, while their relationships progressed over the internet.

Somehow, the Winklevi (as Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, memorably calls them in the film) had foreseen that we would globally embrace online networking as a replacement for face-to-face interaction.

Fincher's film was superb, deserving its many plaudits (including five stars from David). Its value lay in presenting the Zuckerberg-Facebook story as a front for a far deeper discourse about values, the morality of success, and a world shrunk to a global village of 500 million people who could amend their vocabulary in less than five years, yet know little more about each other than what status updates reveal.

Mezrich's book, on the other hand, is sloppy. He explains in the Author's Note that he 'recreated scenes' based on 'documents and interviews, and my best judgement...[to describe] individual perceptions without endorsing them'. He also uses 'the technique of recreated dialogue' to compress conversations that took place over long periods of time, as recollected by multiple participants.

All perfectly acceptable. Except, he can't even get the facts he does present consistent. The book opens from Eduardo Savarin's perspective. He knows Zuckerberg is 'a computer science major who lived in Eliot House' (p15). On page 17, when Savarin meets Zuckerberg he asks (in a recreated conversation) 'What house are you in again?' Mark responds, 'Kirkland'. Given Mezrich has already told us he's recreating information, I'm unlikely to find much of it credible.

Some descriptive passages are overdone, such as describing the Charles River, pre-dawn and home to the rowing menace of the Winklevoss brothers: 'Dead silence, a moment frozen in time, a single paragraph on a single page in a book that spanned three centuries of pregnant, frozen moments like this.' The brothers emerge from the 'frigid glade', rowing in a 'perfect and complex marriage of mechanics and art'. This purple prose comes immediately after Mezrich has recounted Savarin's assertion that in senior year he swears he will have sex in the library stacks. So you know we're not going to stay on message here - Mezrich isn't restricting himself to Savarin's inner thoughts on business and venture capital.

It was probably expecting too much of this story to think it would be polished and balanced. The ink has barely dried on the deals signing off the court cases. Facebook was only created seven years ago, so the fact that almost a tenth of the world is now part of it, and that the language of it has infiltrated our vocabulary is historical evidence enough of its impact, without this 'recreated' account.

30 November, 2010

'What is the What?' - Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers launched a genre with his 'memoir' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. By taking a premise of truth and muddling it with embellishment, exaggeration and fabrication, Eggers presented the world with 'creative non-fiction'.

With What is the What, he continues to defy classification. The book's byline is:

A novel

So which is it? An autobiography or a novel?

Well, are the two in fact mutually exclusive? It's perfectly appropriate for Achak to have engaged someone else to write the book - his grasp of English at the time when the project began (2003) was insufficient to produce the book himself. But why 'a novel'? Eggers actually explains this decision in an essay on the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation website: after two years working on the book, including a visit to Sudan, he found the non-fiction narrative too much like oral histories that had already been published to be effective. There was no evocation of place; for Eggers as a writer, no capacity to bring the facts alive for the audience. Eggers realised that he needed to produce a novel, one that replicated Achak's tone, for the book to have effect.

And it works. As much as possible the book sticks to the facts - for example, it's true that Achak's eventual flight to the US to be repatriated was scheduled for September 11, 2001. However, when the story begins, and the murahaleen first attack Achak's hometown of Marial Bai, he was only six years old - his memory of events and locations was not going to be perfect, and it is in fleshing out these details that Eggers the storyteller comes into his own in partnership with Achak, the one who experienced it all.

The book operates on two timelines: a current storyline, when Achak is living in Atlanta, and has been attacked and robbed in his home; and the chronology of fighting, fleeing and refugee life that he experienced in the desert of Sudan and refugee camps of Ethiopia and Kenya. The characters Achak encounters in America, whether they are his assailants, assistants at hospital when he goes for an MRI following the attack, or customers at the gym where he works on reception, become his audience.

For this is a story that must be experienced. Part of the reason Eggers and Achak chose the novel form was because it needed to be a visceral story: primary sources were the stuff of textbooks and news reports. The 'real' Achak and the Achak narrating this novel want people to really listen to what happened. To understand that spending thirteen years in a refugee camp, after months of being hunted in the desert; watching friends join the army in their early teens to escape the camp; being separated from every member of your family and believe them dead from the age of six; being forgotten by the world; escaping to America only to discover that noone thought through the realities of refugee resettlement - all of this is part of one problem, a problem that still exists. Sudan is still at war and in poverty.

It's appropriate that there is confusion over what this book is - truth or fabrication. Achak's story is unbelievable, yet it is the reality for him, the other 20,000 lost boys, the millions killed and the millions more still living in Sudan, or indeed in refugee camps. For Achak, the reality of America was unbelievable - that he could be rejected at a college because the parents of 'nice blonde girls' wouldn't want them running into him in the hallway; that it could take 15 hours for him to receive an MRI; that police could ignore robbery and assault.

So the question isn't so much 'what is the truth?', but rather 'what is right' - that these events can happen? - or to take literally the question of the title, 'what is the what'? The 'What' in the story is what Adam and Eve did not take as an alternative when God offered them cattle, which they knew would feed them for many generations. The 'what' is the life Achak would have had if he had not spent 13 years in refugee camps, if he had spent his childhood with his brothers and sisters, if his country had been able to return to farming and self-sufficiency without fear of attack. It's not the life he had, but he is able, regardless, to say with certainty that he remains blessed.

30 October, 2010

Felafel at Mankoushe

325 Lygon Street, Brunswick East; (03) 9078 9223

Ah, Mankoushe. This Lebanese woodfire bakery opened a few months back in Lygon St, replacing an African grocer. The hole-in-the-wall setup had few discerning features; if anything, it looked more like a comic-book shop than a takeaway joint, with its red-on-black painted sign.

Not long after, the blogosphere rang with the sound of felafel and the whisper that came with it said Mankoushe (Mankoushe...Mankoushe...)

For darn good reason. Simply stated, this place makes awesome felafel. And it's fresh, every bit of it. When you order, one of the two eager lads who run the place disappears out the back to fry the chickpea balls. The other one puts a round of bread into the woodfire oven.

While you wait, you can check out other delights as they come out of the oven - pliant circles of zatar bread (crazy big for $1.50), all manner of filled pockets with cheese, sucuk and spices.

On the roll, you've got your felafel balls, wonderfully crisped on the outside, tomato, lettuce, garlic sauce and pickles. Oh yes, the pickle - just enough for a bit of crunch and sour, not enough to take over all the garlicky, spiced goodness.

It's $7.50. It takes ten minutes to prepare. It's fantastic.

14 October, 2010

Storytelling stories: 'Oracle Night' and 'Cloud Atlas'

It's a delicate device, choosing to have characters within a novel tell their own stories. At its most overt, the author presents their protagonist as a writer, which can lead to all sorts of wheels-within-wheels scenarios, as you wonder where the author ends and the character begins.

Paul Auster runs visually and virtually parallel stories through Oracle Night. His principal character, Sidney Orr, is a writer, and he talks frequently about his own authoring experience and that of his colleagues. The novel follows Sidney for a period of nine days or so in the eighties, after he purchases a Portuguese notebook from a small Brooklyn stationer, and begins to write for the first time after a long illness.

Sidney gets the idea of a story to write from a snippet in The Maltese Falcon. He takes inspiration from that story to write a tale about a man who walks out on his life after a lucky escape from an accident. Early in the book, large chunks of this 'second-level' story are reproduced. At the first level, Auster presents us with a protagonist who is a writer, creating a story. Within that story, the protagonist is an editor, who is reading a manuscript. And yes, within the second-level story we have a third-level story, as his protagonist reads through and summarises the manuscript (called Oracle Night, as is the novel).

Adding to all of this, when Auster is in his first-level story, he uses footnotes to provide background information. The footnotes are written in the voice of the protagonist, not of the author, adding a layer of complexity and separation from the reader - one starts to question exactly what they're reading. They're not brief, either. Most go across multiple pages, so you have to turn the page(s) to finish reading the footnote, before turning back to where you were in the story.

As I was describing the book's structure to a friend, I found all this talk of second- and third-level stories reminiscent of a certain high-grossing feature film released earlier this year. The comparison came even closer to Inception when Sidney's wife, Grace, described a dream to him (one which resembled the story Sidney was scribbling in his alluring notebook). She ends the description by saying:

People can't die in their dreams, you know...That's how it works. As long as you're dreaming, there's always a way out.

Spinning-top totem, anyone? I wonder if Christopher Nolan is a Auster fan...

Auster's style superficially is very reminiscent of Philip Roth. Both write of men embedded in New York and display an intimate familiarity with the city. Roth too uses writers as protagonists, as in The Ghost Writer (not to be confused with the recent film based on a Robert Harris novel of the same name) and Exit Ghost, and presents stories within stories. Because of that similarity, I felt I was reading a much older book. I was surprised when I realised it was published in 2003 - strange how you can make assumptions about the age of a piece, and how those assumptions affect your reactions to it.

Published the year after Oracle Night was David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. Mitchell also takes an unusual approach to storytelling, relating six different narratives, in six extremely different styles, starting in a Pacific colony in the 1800s and progressing to 'beyond the future'; that is, the penultimate narrative is futuristic, and the last is the future of that future. Speaking of totems, too, tiny details travel with the characters throughout time and narrative.

Each narrative stops abruptly, making the transition to a new voice and time even rougher on the reader. The strongest testament to Mitchell's writing prowess is how quickly the reader feels comfortable with each new style.

Now, I recognise that producing a novel with various narrative voices doesn't sound unusual on the surface of it. But Mitchell does something very special (this isn't a plot spoiler, but my enjoyment of the book was enhanced by the surprise of not knowing how it worked overall, so feel free to skip the rest of the post). At the book's mid-point, the 'future future' narrative ends, and segues back to the penultimate narrative. The book then progresses backwards through time, completing each story. It's a genius technique, like returning to half a dozen unfinished books in a row, reminding yourself of missed characters and reaching the catharsis of resolution multiple times.

Where it fits into this post is that each of the narratives use the protagonist as storyteller, whether it's written as a diary account, as an interview with an archivist, as a lost novel, as letter, or around a futuristic campfire. What Mitchell reminds us of is the universality and timelessness of storytelling. Certainly, its written formats might change, but we will always communicate our stories and there will always be room for words.

Changing the climate: 'Solar' and 'Freedom'

Ian McEwan really only has himself to blame for his latest work, Solar, being dubbed a 'climate change novel'. He used the appelation himself a couple of years ago at the Adelaide Writers Festival, while the book was still a work in progress.

It's a climate change novel, though, in the same way that Enduring Love is about hot-air ballooning: in both cases, the named element is a device, something used to manipulate the characters into situations that allow the writer to reveal their message.

Certainly, McEwan's message is focussed on consumption, excess and the consequences thereof. His protagonist, Michael Beard, is in many ways a repulsive character, an embodiment of capitalism, consumerism and hubris. Once an eminent scientist - a Nobel prize winner, no less - Beard admits:

...two decades had passed since he last sat down in silence and solitude for hours on end, pencil and pad in hand, to do some thinking, to have an original hypothesis, play with it, pursue it, tease it into life. The occasion never arose - no, that was a weak excuse. He lacked the will, the material, he lacked the spark. He had no new ideas.
Even someone whose fame and living has been made through intellectual concepts finds themselves more concerned with material acquisition than mental competency. This sentiment echoes our obsession with new technology: online networking rather than meeting face-to-face; satnavs instead of maps; e-readers rather than books. Everything pixelated is but a reworking of an existing idea; they are alternatives, rarely replacements, and nearly always more damaging in terms of the resources needed to manufacture them.

One review of Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom, called it the Novel of the Century. We're only ten years in and such hyperbole goes hand-in-hand with Franzen's own mockery of a society gone crazy for the wrong things, things that will precipitate the downfall of much good in the world.

Having said that, history could prove that reviewer exactly right, since this is an astonishing, genius piece of work. If you want to know anything at all about the craft of story-telling, about presenting well-rounded, believable and empathetic characters, read Franzen.

In Freedom, Franzen delivers invectives against the Iraq war, sub-prime mortgages, abuse of natural resources, mining and corporate monopolies. The freedom his characters crave is not so much liberation from any form of bondage, or even to act out of free-will. It's almost post-freedom, in which we are liberated to fuck everything up - to ruin marriages, sleep with employees, make money from immoral ventures, live off better-natured people.

Environmentalism is a surprisingly strong plotline in the novel, as the main character, Walter, takes over a Trust dedicated to saving the cerulean warbler. Just as Michael Beard ends up being a hateful choice to save the world through the development of a photosynthesising cell, Walter's Trust will save this one bird species by firstly mining pristine land, before 'reclaiming' it. Both authors are sending the message that we are beyond the tipping point, we're already past saving face in the eyes of future generations. They present bureaucracies and systems in disarray, disempowered to make meaningful change. What Franzen is reminding us of is the ultimate freedom: to act altruistically, to live a life of minimal outward impact and maximum internal satisfaction.

Catching up in Coburg

Half Moon Cafe: 13 Victoria St, Coburg; (03) 9350 476
Cafe Sarabella: 1 Victoria St, Coburg; (03) 9353 5239

With an upper limit for house prices in sight, and the gentry moving ever northward, it's only a matter of time before Coburg is the new Fitzroy.

The Victoria St mall is the obvious candidate to fill in for Brunswick St. But what to eat and sup while posing? Felafel, for starters.

Half Moon Cafe is drawing punters from afar for its famed felafel - made with fava beans, rather than chickpeas - and accompaniments both traditional and inventive. Their special offers cauliflower and eggplant alongside a smoky babaganoush; other mixes offer fetta and olive; or more traditional tahini and pickle.

A couple of shops along, at Cafe Sarabella, carefully prepared Indian food is on offer, with at least half the dishes vegetarian, and many gluten-free and organic. This isn't a run-of-the-mill Indian takeaway, however. Its decor and cosiness is the match of the shabbiest of chic inner-suburban cafes, and it offers a range of sweets to nibble alongside a specially prepared cup of marsala tea or coffee.

The proprietress roasts a mix of six spices, chops them, then grinds to powder, sieves, and grinds again. There's no caffeine in the mix, but she adds the blend to tea or coffee at the customer's whim. If you like your hot drinks a little spicy, she can also add some pepper. Or, if you like to do the mixing yourself after someone else has done the roasting and grinding, her marsala mix is available to buy.

Sip, savour, and soak up the new inner north.

27 September, 2010

If it ain't broke, don't fix it

So the saying goes. I had to question that theory yesterday, however, as we once again navigated the seating, ordering and paying chaos that is Green Refectory.

I love the place - as an eating establishment it has a helluva lot going for it. The salad plates alone are worth elbowing your way to a distressed timber table - pick any three salads for an assemblage of more veg than most can put away comfortably in one sitting, and it's about $8.

But on a day like post-GF-Sunday (or actually, any weekend around mealtime) it's an absolute bunfight. The cafe has a couple of small tables and a big communal one in the front room, in front of the counter. It's prime position for ordering, since the menu is only available via a blackboard behind the counter, and the aforementioned salads, along with a plethora of sweet and savoury baked goods, are only perusable visually. It's also bloody hot out up front, as staff heat up pies, sausage rolls and pasties, and you're definitely going to be crowded out by the throng ordering at the counter, since there's no table service.

A smaller room is past the counter, with another room out the back, which is sometimes quieter, but you do wonder how anyone will find you! The Green has one of the longest backyards in Brunswick, rammed with rickety ironwork tables and narrow benches that are fine for coffee but too narrow for food. If you do score a table at the back, schlepping back in one by one to check the menu and then order doesn't make for a great start to the visit.

Yet, it works, and I can only assume that the ongoing level of patronage means the owners see no need to make adjustments. Sticking with counter service is their prerogative, as is saving money by not printing menus, but...it's a cafe, it makes and serves food, so giving customers access to choose from what's on offer is a pretty important overhead.

Thankfully, the latest rash of newly opened Brunswick cafes haven't copied their ordering method. New Day Rising, at 221d Blyth St, can probably get away without one since it may be the smallest cafe in the inner north. It's so small you need to go with someone you're happy to talk to, as there's no guarantee you'll fit in a book and food! They do offer a Toast feast, however, with a range of toppings that you may not have on hand at home, such as Persian fetta, quince paste and tahini.

Just around the corner at 120 Nicholson St, Milkwood (owned by the same folk as Cafe Rosamond on Smith St Collingwood) have printed up a nice three-pager, offering delicious breakfasts such as porridge with rhubarb, roasted macadamias and brown sugar crumble, as well as baguettes for lunch. Their housemade lamingtons are awesome - first bite barely gets you past the chocolate coating, but persevere for the moist sponge, smeared with just a hint of jam. Milkwood fills the Sunday void when Piano is closed.

On Glenlyon Road, Kitchen Kultcha have taken the Brunswick Model perhaps a little too seriously - their front room is a mess of reclaimed furniture, looking on to the back of the prep area. It's much nicer sitting at the back, in the 'takeaway area', where you get the heads up that the sandwiches, offered on both printed and blackboard menu - come from a display. Try their pumpkin bread with passionfruit curd for a morning tea with a twist.

Looking at this latest crop, it seems another saying is just as true of the Greater Brunswick Area: if you build it, they will come.

'A Fraction of the Whole' - Steve Toltz

It's a big book. It's one of those hardcovers you can't help but heave rather than lift off the counter. But thank goodness it's big, because it is so darn good.

In this novel, Toltz has combined humour and insight with rare skill. His writing style is Franzenesque, with bizarre developments such as a character building a house in a labyrinth, or deciding to make everyone in Australia a millionaire. My response to the book reminded me of how I felt about David Sedaris, with his similar combination of provocative philosophy and laughs.

A big distinction for Toltz, however, is that he's Australian. Like Richard Flanagan in The Unknown Terrorist, he unashamedly uses Australia as his landscape and backdrop. Events from Australian history are dropped knowingly into the story, without self-conscious explanation.

The book oscillates between the points of view of father and son Martin and Jasper Dean. Their lives are irrevocably affected by Terry Dean, Martin's brother and Jasper's uncle. The setting ranges from country town, to Sydney, to Paris, to Thailand, but the control of language and scene never changes.

Toltz knows how to build a sentence, and perhaps even more importantly, he knows when to start a new one. His style is both punchy and fluid, immensely readable, making the book's many-hundred-page extent manageable. His themes in this book touch on family and ambition, and revolve around legacy, of what we want to make for ourselves while alive and how we want that remembered once we're dead.

Much of the early part of the book is set around a prison, offering opportunity for plenty of great characterisation ('He scratched at his tattoo. It wouldn't come off.'). Nestled among the humour and hysterics, however, are aphorisms to live by: 'Choosing between the available options is not the same as thinking for yourself'.

A Fraction the Whole was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2008, and it is certainly deserving of accolade and attention.

08 May, 2010

Full-baked: The bakeries of northeast Victoria

A bakery tour. That's what I'd like to do. Drive from one country town to another, lunching on pies, snacking on slices and indulging on cakes.

At its best, a country bakery leaves you with an impossible choice of goodies. At the other end of the scale, you can start wondering why you left the city and find the dry spread of baked goods on offer as appealing as whatever's been sunning on the back seat.

Why not a bakery blog? One must exist - if you know of any, leave a comment with a link. Some existing blogs cover relevant content. Stickyfingers, for example, branched out from Deep Dish Dreams to dream up the Vanilla Slice Blog, a commendable addition to the blogosphere ('I'm eating this pastry purely for the purposes of research!').

A consortium of bloggers got together in 2007 to set up PiEcon, 'dedicated to an Australian icon', and a blog that took pastry and filling very seriously, nation-wide.

While planning for recent travels through the high country and alpine area of Victoria, I'd made note of several bakeries that we would encounter along the way. Every such trip sees me dreaming of early morning bakery visits to worship at the freshly filled glass cases, of picking the perfect morning treat to the backdrop of milk-steaming and tea-mug tinkling. Or pulling into a one-street town bang on the point of lunch, and elbowing through unexpected crowds to pick between the pies crowned with semaphores of triangles, bows, squares and cuts.

It doesn't always work that way, of course. Sometimes the bakery doesn't keep bakers' hours, thwarting early morning calls; sometimes it's just a re-seller for mass-produced bread and buns, uninspiring as a city franchise; and hunger has an annoying habit of calling when you're hours from a planned pie stop, and they're not the best things to buy for later.

But then again, sometimes it does. On this trip we managed some happy bakery moments, visiting some of Victoria's most famous.

Our first bakery was Marysville's, one whose story was forever changed on Black Saturday 2009. The re-opened bakery is now a symbol for the town's regeneration, and a beacon for travellers lending support. It's a broad, well-stocked space, offering fuller lunches along with the sweet and savoury baked goods. We were on our way to Tea Rooms at Yarck, so stuck with goods that could be consumed later that day: apple slice for me, and blueberry pie for SG.

Our lunch proved more than adequate to see us through the rest of the day, so the sweets ended up serving an unexpected purpose. The next morning, I bought some Greek yoghurt and crumbled the apple slice in. I pinched some blueberry as well - wonderfully tart - for a superb Mansfield breakfast.

Mansfield itself offered a decent high street bakery, where a plump, oniony sausage roll filled a food gap while our car was having a new alternator fitted. The Mansfield bakery offered the Ned Kelly pie - beef pie with egg, bacon and cheese - a specialty of the region made famous by the local area's bakery monolith in Beechworth.

Beechworth Bakery has become something of a business model that also bakes a bit. Well, it still bakes a lot, but put it this way: have you heard of another bakery that sells its own merchandise next to the family quiches? Tom O'Toole founded the company in 1984, and has since opened another five shops around country Victoria. Tom has set himself up as a motivational business speaker, as someone who both 'knows the taste of deprivation and despair' and how to turn a 'failing little bakery' into a $12m a year business. Not quite the family-run shop you might expect (it's even licensed, and has live music on Sundays!).

But it's still an experience, and a well set up one. The flagship Beechworth shop is enormous, spreading over two storeys, with ample supplies of cutlery, serviettes, water and everything you could want to put into a bottomless cup of tea or coffee. The wraparound counter proffers everything from pies to biscuits to cakes to quiches to slices to filled sandwiches and more.

We'd just ridden 16km uphill, and a meat pie sounded like a pretty fitting reward. Beechworth's steak and mushroom delivered a fine pastry, one that held its filling without sagging or sogginess. The mushrooms were clearly identifiable, though the steak was minced rather than diced (a chunky steak pie was also on offer - guess you've got to be specific about these things).

We popped back to Beechworth later in the day for sweets: caramel slice for me, which wasn't too thick, but with an oozingly rich caramel; and an apple pocket. They're open til around 7pm each night, but I noted they'd sold out of a lot of stuff by the time we got back there - disappointing if you were after a date scone, but good to see they're not unpacking the freezer to keep punters happy.

Bright's bakery only scored a cursory glance, before we headed over Hotham. It was an occasion when the bakery didn't offer that item between sweet and savoury, between plain and indulgent, that would fill up the holiday-specific time between a cooked breakfast and a bought lunch.
The Omeo High Plains Bakery and Cafe has a grand name, and sits across from Omeo's grand Golden Age Motel, a building rebuilt from the 1939 fires into an art deco dream. This bakery gets kudos for being an early opener, even on a Saturday. It offers fine coffee, plenty of bread, and even does bigger dinner dishes in addition to the standard baked goods, such as slabs of lasagne - handy if you're staying at the caravan park and have access to cooking facilities.
The bakery highlight of the trip came 25km down the Great Alpine Road from Omeo, at Swifts Creek. This little wonder is so understated it's not on the main road, but plenty of friendly baker cutouts make it hard to miss.
Their pies are superb. The pastry is firm, buttery and with a flavour all its own. I had a meat and veg pastie, and from the moment I bit into it I could smell the veg - wafts of the peas, celery and carrot nestled amongst a coarse mince. SG went the apple and berry pie - bursting with fruit and liberally dusted with sugar, it was a benchmark piece for the cusp of autumn.

26 April, 2010

Simone's of Bright

98 Gavan St, Bright; (03) 5755 2266

As a resident of inner Melbourne, I can never complain of lack of choice for exciting places to eat. I reserve some envy, however, for those further afield who may have fewer choices but have one outstanding local. Those who call Bright home not only have ready access to some of Victoria's finest scenery, but also one of its most applauded restaurants, Simone's.

Chef Patrizia Simone has worked the stove for over 20 years, and has been awarded the title of 'Legend of the MelbourneFood and Wine Festival'. The high country is known for its defiant Italian influences, and Simone's reclaims a little part of the country for her home region of Umbria.

Our whole trip to the high country was scheduled around dinner at Simone's, so I was pretty excited by the time we finished a tasting paddle at Bright Brewery and headed across the road to the humble brick cottage housing the restaurant. The welcome was pleasant, and each table holds beautiful crockery.
The menu offered all the promise I'd hoped for, and we started suitablly carnivorously with an antipasto of cured meats:Ours to enjoy were slices of wagyu bresaola, chestnut-fed pork salumi and proscuitto.

My main sang off the page - coniglio con erbe, patate e strozzapreti, and appeared appropriately enticing on the plate:The discs are of Yackandandah rabbit, infused with fennel and wrapped in porcetta, with a braised leg sharing the bed of potato puree.

It was a meal so expertly executed, that it wasn't until after I'd finished it that I realised how worthwhile it had been, and I confess to scoffing it down without taking the time to appreciate subtler flavours and the quality of ingredients.

The desserts at Simone's tip their hat to traditional Italian produce as much, if not more than, the mains.

Here we have budino con prugne e gelato: Flourless blood plum pudding with plum ice cream. Simply perfect for a chilly autumn night.

My dessert didn't quite top off the night as effectively, mainly due to personal taste and a slight disconnect between description and delivery.

Its Italian name is acqua minerale di sambuco, cioccolate bianca, fichi.Its translated description is honey-roasted figs, roasted pine-nut shortbread and ice cream, white chocolate coconut cappucino.

I wasn't expecting foam (OK, it says cappucino, but I was thinking more of frothed chocolate in a cup!). And, while I adore and could live off fig paste, the fruit itself isn't a texture that works for me. So, the fruit part of this dessert - while probably heaven to most fine diners - didn't offer much enjoyment, but that ice cream made up for it. Delicious.

Wining and dining: Gapsted and Gracebrook

Gapsted Wines: 3897 Great Alpine Rd, Gapsted (nr Myrtleford); 03 5751 1992
Gracebrook: 4446 Wangaratta-Whitfield Rd, King Valley; (03) 5729 3562

Wineries are blessed destinations. Grapes have the happy fortune to grow well in valleys made fertile by ancient rivers and soils, factors that tend to lend themselves to particularly picturesque landscapes. The soil that determines the terroir is usually also handy for raising other delectable crops, and where's there are crops, there's likely to be cattle, and hence smallgoods.

Fortunately, many a savvy winery owner has put all the factors together to offer passers-by a lot more than free samples of their vinous product. There are few better ways to dine than al fresco, overlooking the orderly rows of vines, with a choice of produce sourced from places you're likely to pass on your way to that evening's accommodation.

Even better if you can sneak in a tasting after you've ordered, to make the most informed choice of all as to what will accompany your meal.

Gapsted Wines, near Myrtleford, has to be one of the most pleasing examples of this combination of outlook, food and wine. Its vines roll down to the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail, and it would be a surly cyclist who wouldn't point their handlebars up the drive to see what's on offer.

What they'll find is a stunning view that takes in Gapsted's crop; rolling, livestock-dotted fields, and the impressive ruggedness of Mt Buffalo. The day we ensconced ourselves upon the deck was near perfect: unseasonably warm weather gave us sun to bask in while we took in the range of autumn colours on display.

Gapsted has one of the longest tasting lists I've ever seen. The vineyard operates as the Victorian Alps Winery, and sells almost half a dozen brands, including Gapsted, Tobacco Road and Coldstone. Their list of produced wines runs to two pages, and all are available to sample. Despite the breadth on offer, cellar door staff are knowledgable about the wines, and affable to boot. The wines are also available by the glass with lunch, with many of the entry-level brands for $5 a glass.

The menu is succinct, but a celebration of the surrounding area. Three local tasting platters are available, focusing on antipasto, cheese, a daily selection of dips, or trout three ways.

The first of these presents as an admirable array:Eggplant, sun-drieds, roast caps, zucchini, mushroom, a whole artichoke heart, salami, mortadella and the briefest sprinkling of some Milawa cheese, all served with bread and crostini.

Main dishes ran to the heartier end of the scale, such as this deliciously seared pork cutlet, served on a bed of ratatouille.Pick a sunny day, and settle in to sup wine - by the glass or sample - and nibble.

Earlier in the trip we'd passed through the King Valley, later than the usual lunch serving time, and hence with a limited number of places still plating up food. One of those places was Gracebook Vineyard, a couple of ks north of Whitfield. They keep the kitchen open throughout the afternoon and, again, offer a bucolic outlook and a range of well-priced bottles to sample.

Our food choices suited the mood perfectly. Firstly, a homemade gnocchi with mushroom sauce. The pliant gnocchi clung to the rich, but not overpowering sauce, touched with a hint of truffle. The rocket provided the perfect bite to foil the earthy flavours of potato and mushroom.

The perfectly roasted pumpkin salad hosted Milawa goats cheese from up the road and a ubiquitous use of local nut, in this case walnut. The dressing - presumably with a local oil - was divine.

Also recommended: Boyntons (or Feathertop Wines) near Porepunkah. In autumn, their cellar door affords a breathtaking view of many-hued trees, backlit by the hills. Visitors can dine a la carte, or select from their deli range and picnic on the lawn.

Range at Myrtleford

258 Great Alpine Rd, Myrtleford; 03 5752 2885

When you're hot, you're hot. When Michael Ryan opened Range at Myrtleford, the plaudits rolled in and the restaurant filled a fairly broad gap - geographically speaking - in fine dining in the northeast (Simone's at Bright notwithstanding). Range earned two hats and Country Restaurant of the Year in 2008 thanks to Ryan's 'regional contemporary' food.

Range was, and is, attached to Motel on Alpine, one of Myrtleford's more modern accommodation options. Ryan and the motel have parted ways, with Ryan taking his chef's tools - and a lot of Range's cred - to Beechworth to open Provenance. Sean Ford has picked up the tongs at Range. Like Ryan, Ford brings interstate experience and a long resume to the restaurant.

Locals seem sceptical about the change, using the past tense when describing the restaurant as good. I query that assessment for two reasons: 1) Myrtleford is a town un-awash with food not branded as 'bistro'; and 2) having eaten there Ford seems a dab hand at handling the local produce.

Where Range is difficult is in its kitout. Maybe it worked better when it was pumping every night with long-distance culinary fans. The night we were there, the carpeted room - more reminiscent of an art gallery than a dining room - housed but two other couples and two lone diners, most of whom were guests at the motel.

It's a small space, but one that was worked efficiently by a lone member of waitstaff. The menu undoubtedly focuses on regional produce, which is what you're after at an expensive regional restaurant.

Having said that about regional dishes, our starter was baby calamari, served with a white bean, olive and parsley salad, plus a 'spicy' coriander dressing that presented more like pesto.It wasn't picked for its local-ness, but rather the fact that it was something we could share! The squid was lightly charred and nicely pliant, and offered a good amount as a starter. The accompanying salad was suitably light and fresh.

Other more local entree options included Milawa quail with polenta, and fried zucchini flowers from Merriang.

That afternoon we'd driven down to Lake Buffalo, past a turnoff to the delightfully named Nug Nug. The village showed up on one of the main options: braised Nug Nug kid with local forest mushrooms, baby carrots and kipflers.Chef Ford slow cooks two cuts of meat - loin and flank. I'm used to goat on the bone in a curry, but this was quite different. The meat was juicily sinewy, melting like a three-hour lamb roast. The starchy veg nestled alongside the kid made it a wintry dish, sure, and it could have used something a bit lighter to mix it up - a spark of green or crunch on the plate (supplied, as it happened, by a side order of steamed beans with almonds).

SG went for a rather more exotically described main: greta saltbush lamb (Greta being a town about 50km west of Myrtleford), with eggplant caviar, white bean puree, parmesan crisps, fresh peas and rosti potato. Believe it or not, it was all there on the plate! The lamb was lovely - a generous serve of eight moist, pink slices, just crisped on the outside. The accompanying jus worked a treat with the house bread - an unbelievably aromatic bake served with creamed butter. The whole dish was perhaps a bit busy - the eggplant caviar (slow-cooked strips of the veg) probably an obvious element to forego.

Earlier in the night we'd seen the waitress take a shot of gin out to the kitchen, which led me to think that this was my kind of chef! The dessert menu revealed the reason, however: a savarin with gin and rhubarb syrup. My gin requirements had been quenched with a gin and tonic to start the evening, and I was keen to continue my indulgence in the region's autumnal affair with the nut, hence selecting the chestnut souffle with dark chocolate parfait.
I'm not a regular souffle eater, so can't rate this one against many others. It's innards crumbled satisfactorily, but it was also scaldingly hot. (Our dessert order had anteceded the departure of the penultimate guests by at least 20 minutes.) The parfait was excellent though - firmish on the outside and gooey inside, and made with the quality dark chocolate that you just know is good for you.

The parfait was drizzled with Beechworth honey, an establishment we'd visited that day. Their hometown store offers help-yourself samples of dozens of honeys, a worthwhile way to ascertain the different between a leatherwood and a messmate (our fave).

SG thought he was taking the more straightforward dessert option, with a simple order for the lemon meringue tart with vanilla anglaise. But here it was the execution that was more exotic.
The tart was deconstructed into biscuity rounds topped with a puckering lemon curd, flanking a somewhat charred rectangle of meringue. It luckily tasted less scorched than it looked! (But again, perhaps the chef was too keen to finish up the last service of the night?)

A particularly commendable aspect of dining at Range was their commitment to not only local food produce, but wine as well. Most of the wines available by the glass were from vineyards very close by, and more often than not for around $8. The menu also featured a dish of the month, with suggested local wines by the glass or bottle to go with it.

Both our wine selections introduced us to new vineyards to seek out: the 2008 Annapurna pinot gris, and a 2008 pinot noir from Bogong Estate (who exclusively produce pinots).

Glancing over Michael Ryan's menu at Provenance, I can see that Range may have lost some sexiness with his departure. Ford has continued the commitment to local produce, however, and he's handling it with aplomb.

Tea Rooms at Yarck

6585 Maroondah Hwy, Yarck; (03) 5773 4233

Pietro Porcu has crafted his own style of Sardinian food at Da Noi in South Yarra for over ten years. It's a style that truly celebrates the seasonal, cooking what's good there and then and eschewing the need for a rigid menu. It's more what you might expect in a hailed trattoria in an obscure Italian town; all it lacked was the isolation.

Since opening his second restaurant at Yarck (open on weekends only), Porcu has added that missing piece. Recreating the subsistence lifestyle of his childhood with his own farm near the speck-on-the-map town, Porcu has created a gorgeous outpost of authentic, field-to-plate eating.

As at Da Noi, guests are welcome to discuss their likes and dislikes with the waitstaff and have the chef prepare an impromptu meal accordingly. The chef's menu is $78, priced around four courses, although the final cost can be adjusted if you end up eating more or less. A group dining near us were overwhelmed when their main course arrived: an enormous, overflowing bowl of crab claws, beautifully presented with the terracotta shells contrasting the traditional blue, yellow and white pattern of the plate.

A brief blackboard menu of daily specials is also available: antipasti, two entrees, two primi, three secondi and a handful of desserts. The waitstaff were happy to talk through the menu in some detail: these are dedicated people on the floor, who understand Porcu's love of food and his ability to share something special with each diner.

We managed to get the best of both worlds, ordering two unmissable entrees, and one a la carte and one special main - more on that later.

Before ordering, the visit started with some fried and battered broccolini - impressively fresh after obviously just kissing the oil. Between ordering and receiving entrees, we nibbled on bread and some simple marinated capsicum.
SG's entree of rolletto di coniglio was equally tantalising to us both: rolled rabbit, stuffed with mince and speared with beans, served with a rich, syrupy drizzle of balsamic reduction. My entree was the crespelle: crepes with fontina, ham and broccoli, served straight from the oven. Broccoli can be a steamed disaster or, as in this case, it can be a sparky foil to richer companions such as the cured ham and gooey cheese.

For main, SG chose the cervo con polenta. Venison, like veal, is a meat I avoid, since it's so hard to vouch for the care and upbringing of the animal. In a restaurant like this, however, I feel differently. The venison was marinated overnight in a red wine sauce, and came to the table oozing over a polenta mush, studded with carrots so soft and sweet they tasted like poached pears.

My main is something it will take me a long time to forget. I had gone for the lasagnetta, but the waitress advised it was a bit similar to the crespelle and suggested a dish not on the menu: chestnut pasta, with a duck and orange ragu. The pasta noodles were astounding. They hardly dominated the dish, but the richer flavour and slightly grittier texture were so noticeable. And the ragu was just a dream, a wondrous blend of flavours that, while rich, demanded I make as much room as possible and just keep eating.

I was, not surprisingly, sated after those two courses, but SG ploughed on with a serve of pineapple sorbet, perfectly sweet and expertly creamed, topped with a couple of curves of candied fruit. I pushed the boat out with a serve of Mirto, a Sardinian myrtle liquor that is bang on for a mix of sweet and herby, but at $15 a glass not something I'll chuck back just anywhere.
But this was absolutely that kind of meal - where you revel in the food, the atmosphere of the place, the knowledge and skill of the chef and his staff, and the pure enjoyment of a well-prepared meal.

Also recommended near Yarck: Mansfield Traveller's Lodge. Mansfield is about 40 mins from Yarck and this motel offers fantastic value - big rooms at under $100, with tips for local places to visit, a communal kitchen and DVDs to borrow - and exceptional service (eg jump-starts and recommendations for mechanics when your car breaks down!)

05 April, 2010

Human frailty: 'Blindness' and 'The Children of Men'

A dystopia is a powerful world for an author to evoke. It is made all the more potent when created through a single permutation in normality, revealing how fragile our hold on security has been made by 'progress'. P.D. James' Children of Men and Jose Saramago's Blindness both explore a world wracked by a single failing that - slowly or quickly - is the undoing of mankind.

(Coincidentally, both books were made into movies within two years of each other, both starring Julianne Moore.)

In P.D. James' The Children of Men, humankind has lost the ability to reproduce. Rather than presenting a post-apocalytpic world, James' is mid-apocalyptic: humanity is dying, not suddenly through a cataclysmic attack, but patiently, as the population inexorably ages.

Hers is a fascinating concept. Just what would we do if the human race became infertile? What would be the first industries and services to suffer? The social implications are so forseeable and worthy of scrutiny that the outcomes of such an event could be explored systematically, in a future-doco format.

James instead creates a protagonist, Theo Farron, upon whom to hinge the plot. His centrality to events past - his childhood with Britain's ruler - and present - a splinter group's choice to ask him to help them - is unfeasible and stalls the book to an extent. James concerns herself solely with the situation in England (and a small portion of that country at that). The book offers no explanation for the infertility, and the fact that births simply stopped in 1995 is conceptually problematic.

Those born in 1995 - all 25 years old at the time of the book's setting - are known as Omegas, and bear an uncanny resemblance to today's Gen Ys. They are described as 'indulged ... arrogant ... without animation or energy'. The similarity can only be inadvertent since the book was written in 1992. It's an intriguing device, imbuing this unprecedented consciousness into the last-born, but again relies on society functioning a little more neatly and uniformly than it does.

The protagonist Theo is a professor at Oxford, and cousin to the Warden of England, a benevolent dictator who rules the country assisted by a council of four. James' choice of governance warrants further consideration. What would happen to our governments if our race were not to see out the century? The cynical thought occurs that we're already ruled like a nation with noone under 25 and 90% of the population over 50. But would parliament be disbanded? Would one person emerge to take on responsibility for keeping order, keeping the electricity running, finding something for the schoolteachers, childcare workers and children's retailers to do?

Theo's world is a strange one, straddling two genres: it is neither a futuristic rendering from sci-fi, nor a barely recognisable, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Many scenes feature derelict buildings and nature overrunning man-made structures - with fewer people this world has finally solved the housing crisis - alongside normality as Theo drives to work and shop.

The story was significantly altered for the movie verson (Theo Farron is no Clive Owen!), but the filmed version provoked a similar ambivalence of criticism, with many respecting the premise but questioning the execution.

Blindess explores a different calamity: an epidemic of non-seeing, which rapidly reduces the world to barbarism and criminality. Again, it's a singular change, yet its ramifications are feasibly encompassing and horrific. The blindess is contagious, and the first couple of hundred people afflicted are quarantined. Very quickly, though, they must fend entirely for themselves. Just as quickly, their quarantine station descends into the most basic of barbarism.

The descent is both quick and total. Saramago spares no attention to detail of the excrement, the despair, the violence, and the lust, of both the requited and forced kind. The book featured scenes I found difficult to read; from discussions with others who've read it I think most will find something hard to get through, but what it is depends on your personal sensitivity.

What I found difficult was the notion that we would necessarily descend to rape and pillage, if 200 random humans were left alone in desparate circumstances. The quarantine station Saramago creates serves as a microcosm; when the sequestered get out, they realise the quarantine was a fruitless ordeal, since the plague of blindness has spread universally. The group in quarantine, therefore, serve Saramago's literary licence, as they must display what is worst - and in the case of one or two characters - what is best in us.

Saramago's writing style is peculiar - he believes in long paragraphs, with no visual distinction between dialogue and prose. I haven't read other books of his to know if this is his standard, but in this book it's effective in disorienting the reader, and bringing them closer to an empathy with these characters who have also lost their orientation.

It's astonishing to consider how fundamentally that one change would alter existence. How would we eat if noone could distinguish between the packets? Who would manage our utilities if noone could see the dials? How would you find your way home if you were out when the blindness struck? Saramago describes the blindness as a white world, reinforcing the point that everything we have built is still there - and illuminated, if the people could only see.