31 January, 2011

Duchess of Spotswood

87 Hudsons Rd, Spotswood; (03) 9391 6016

I wonder sometimes how a cafe owner approaches the challenge of doing something 'different' for breakfast. You could throw some unusual ingredients into an omelette, sure, but to do something truly inventive - particularly in this town - means thinking outside the box, circle, square and geometry itself.

Duchess of Spotswood have thrown out the set square and come up with an equation where inventive + quality = a cafe worth crossing town for.

First of all, they're in a suburb off the beaten cafe track. Most of Melbourne's cafe afficionados are going to have to travel to get there (and to those already living in Spotswood - lucky you!). That the blogosphere is, regardless, alight with praise for their British-influenced menu tells you the effort is worth it.

Two words: pork neck. For breakfast. That's thinking outside the box. It involves rather more effort than frying bacon to order. The Duchess' menu manages to put the 'slow' back into break-fast, but the presentation speaks of simplicity and flavour, rather than convolution and complexity.

Here's their version of muesli:Served on a wooden board, the 'muesli bar' is one to eat with fork, not fingers. It's a conglomeration of nuts, oats, puffed rice, dried fruit and other morsels of goodness, held together with something sticky - honey or golden syrup - that has the sweet dial turned to spot-on. On the side is creamy yoghurt and seasonal fruit.

See, simple: ingredients and process aren't too out there, but presentation has a big wow factor, without being intimidating or sacrificing satisfaction.

I love black pudding, but I'm not going to order it just anywhere. With a kitchen pedigree that includes the Station Hotel in Footscray and The Botanical, I was comfortable that I, and the piggy before me, would be in safe hands. And we were.
I know it's not to everyone's taste, but chef Gale's version is light and delicate with cinnamon. The eggs are from Villa Verde in Mitcham and, honestly, you could simply have had these two orbs all on their own. Perfectly poached and bursting with bright-orange yolk.

The bread is from Zeally Bay in Torquay. I had ciabatta with a steak-knife crust on my plate, along with a pot of whipped butter (it's the little things). Our next-table neighbours had the avocado and goats cheese sprinkled with fresh herbs and broad beans, served on thin crusty bread. Even the toast is selected to match the meal.

Other options include the wonderfully named Breakfast of Champignons, with mushrooms and Stilton. Giddy up.

So, get out of the box and out of the city. You'll be rewarded.

24 January, 2011

'See Naples and Die' - Penelope Green

It was en route to reviewing this book that I came to my musings on the travel writing genre in the previous post. Many of its elements, good and bad, tick the boxes of the classic characteristics of the genre.

The fact of moving overseas for a dramatic change does not imbue the traveller with the skills of a writer. Notwithstanding the fact that many, including Green, who release travel books have a background in journalism, it's a huge challenge to filter an intense set of experiences into a coherent story with a point.

Green is not as new to the style as her name suggests. She has produced three books about living in Italy, the first about her time immediately after arriving in Rome, friendless, jobless and languageless. This is the second, and it's followed up by a third account of living on an island off Naples with her Italian partner (who she meets in this book).

Her purpose in this second instalment moves beyond mere recounting of a foreigner's experiences abroad. Naples is a complex, scary, passionate, intimidating and beautiful city, and Green wants to use her time there to understand it. She uses her contacts and journalistic nous to interview many prominent Neapolitans. Coming to terms with the city - and its equal parts chaos and charm - is a neat allegory for a woman in her 30s trying to choose the right track on which to set the wheels of her life.

It's tough, though, producing a book like this. You need the reader to understand your environment, but too often Green recounts anecdotes without weaving them into a greater narrative. The book wouldn't be interesting enough if it were simply a set of stories about meeting friends in bars - that would amount to a set of emails from a travelling friend - but it wouldn't be a travel narrative if she simply presented her research into the Camorra and Naples' insidious criminality. It's hard, too, to balance details of a one-night-stand with a local against interviews with the city's mayor and her plans for another term in office.

You can tell, too, that while the book purports to be a chronological report of her first year in Naples, it jumps around a lot more than that. And fair enough - this isn't a set of emails sent weekly to friends and family. This is a compilation, a condensed version of events, and it's fine to conflate something that happened in April with a related encounter from October. What's curious is that every 'real-life' figure Green encounters - by which I mean a public figure, rather than one of her friends - is re-introduced at each mention. Rosa Russo Iervolino, for example, is always introduced with the apposition 'mayor of Naples'; whereas I'd lost track of her first-name-only friends by about the third chapter. The repetition makes it easier from an editor's point of view, but it also removes the reader from the conversation, because it's like the author can't remember what they've already told you.

The language issues always intrigue me in a story like this. Green more than once bemoans her 'deteriorating Italian' - her work in Naples is editing English-language articles for a Mediterranean-news website. Yet she's interviewing the mayor, senior church figures, lawyers, victims, and recording their experiences with dextrous language. I'm so curious as to how that comes about, and wish the narrative would 'lift the veil' once in a while to mention the whirr of the tape recorder in the room, or explain what's been paraphrased, not to mention who did the eventual translation.

The book is somewhat overrun with Italian translations, much like a guidebook. Years ago in Italy, it amused my travelling companion and me no end when the Lonely Planet guide bothered to translate Piazza di San Marco to St Mark's Plaza. Some of Green's translations are similarly obvious, though she does also make an effort to include and explain aphoristic gems from the Neopolitan dialect.

To give credit where it's due, Green does undertake a heroine's journey. She decides upon commencing her job in Naples not to focus on socialising with her work colleagues - she'd rather keep that relationship professionally separate. That's commendable - I'd be grabbing at any chance of companionship that was on offer. Obviously Green is made of stronger social stuff than that, and gathers an admirable posse during her time including, inevitably for the genre, an Italian love (Alfonso).

I think some examples of travel writing are better for those who haven't ventured far from home. A lack of empathy can imbue these tales with a fantastical, gripping element. If I'm honest, I can't help feeling a level of competitiveness when following a heroine's travel journey, and sometimes what I want is exactly what wouldn't sell books - more of the fear and failings that must accompany the author's audacity and success.

Have travelled, will write

Many years ago, when I worked in a bookstore, a woman asked me for our travel narrative section, because that was 'pretty much all' she read.

I was surprised, not thinking there'd be enough on offer to sustain such a predilection. Now, I'd consider that customer overwhelmed for choice.

While the genre is broad, two types of titles dominate: women who move, usually alone, to a Mediterranean idyll; and men who set out on a journey, courtesy of a challenge.

In the case of women's travel writing especially, it fits squarely into the niche of aspirational literature. The books are successful because of their destinations, because of their romance, not simply because they offer well-told stories. You can be sure that Eat Pray Love would not have been the runaway seller it is if one of the 'I' countries that Elizabeth Gilbert travelled to had been Iceland, rather than Italy.

It's intriguing that the women's stories usually involve relocation, leaving something behind, becoming connected with a new community, and, more often than not, finding love. The men are rarely so stationary. Think Charley Boorman and his innumerable trips around the globe on unusual types of transport; Tim Elliott and his Spanish search to unravel the myth around bullfighter JesulĂ­n; and Tony Hawks' bizarre determination to travel around Ireland with a fridge. Unlike the women, they often leave intact, rather than broken, relationships behind, yet conversely they seem absent from their experiences rather than integral.

What I realise, thinking through these typical storylines, is that what we see repeatedly in travel writing is the heroine's and hero's journeys. In the former, the heroine must reject a mother-figure (her homeland) and seek a new environment, where she comes to an emotional nadir (feeling trapped in an unwelcoming city, but not ready to return home) before piecing their life back together (new job, new love) and embracing their animus (through the stoicism of staying and finding acceptance).

The hero, on the other hand, is presented with a challenge (the fridge, the bullfighter, a rowboat), which at first they resist (how will I carry a fridge? or, My wife would never agree) before taking it on and receiving help along the way (people who write travel books invariably encounter the friendliest people in any part of the world). They emerge from the supreme battle (near death at the hands of a freighter, hangovers) to return with the boon (often a fresh understanding of culture).

This consistently different emphasis between the genders in travel writing had always puzzled me, but, oddly, I think this analogy might have solved it. To travel is to journey, and the journey has been the foundation of storytelling for centuries. I wonder often why the same type of experience continues to sell travel books, but it's because it taps into a sub-conscious resource of familiar stories.

When I started this post, I wasn't planning to write about heroes and heroines at all - it wasn't until summarising the types of travel writing that the link occurred to me. What I was going to write about was how far short so many travel books fall of the mark of being a good book. Setting and circumstance are what sell, rather than the quality of how the author tells it. Not everyone who treechanges to an overseas locale writes a book about it, and not everyone who does has the ability to tell the tale well. What they have is the licence to share the experience.

Another w(h)ine

We've had the Inequitable Wine Experience, easily explained by the fact that we were in a cheap noodle joint, where just getting served is more important than matching wine glasses. And we were northside - you expect odd and surly. It was the other side of the river, however, that offered up the Weird Wine Experience.

Journeying far from our native Brunswick for a friend's farewell drinks, we found ourselves near a distant shoreline, at a pub called Hotel Nest (formerly, I'm told, the Red Eagle) in Albert Park. It's Saturday night. It's a warm day. We're out for classy drinks in a pub full of frills, heels and Marc Jacobs. So I ask, 'Can I see a wine list?'

Bartender: No, we don't have one, sorry! But I can run you through it. What do you want?

Me: Well, I want to see a wine list so I can choose. Never mind, I'll have a beer.

A glance at the taps - Pure Blonde, Kroenenburg, not a boutique brew in sight - has me turning back to the bartender.

Me: OK, what's your house white?

Bartender: We've got quite a few! There's a sav blanc, a riesling, a pinot gris, a chardonnay, a verdelho, gewurztraminer...

Me: Fine, what's the pinot gris?

Bartender: Well, we've got two...

By now, I feel like I've moved into some bizarre dichometric puzzle. After minutes more discussion, we came away with a glass of Innocent Bystander pinot gris, and a pot of Asahi, served in the kind of cheap, ridged glass I'd expect to see at a fill-your-own-water station in a cafe, for $18. (So asking if they had anything for $6 a glass probably wouldn't have got me anywhere!)

I have the feeling that if you'd asked for the wine list when the venue was the Red Eagle you probably would have been asked not-so-politely to leave, or at least to harden the fuck up and order a pint. You can't do either now, since they also don't serve beers in 'big' glasses. But seriously, if it were the Red Eagle and the wine on offer was from either of the casks you could see perched between the pitchers behind the bar, I could understand them not wasting the ink. Otherwise, print the darn thing out!