Just two weeks now before I head off for a touring holiday in Jordan and Egypt, accompanied by my two best friends – I was going to say my two oldest friends, and whilst that might actually be correct, it doesn’t sound right.
I have an expanding walking pole for the rough terrain we are promised, a pair of hideous and very cheap plastic sandals for the Dead Sea (apparently it has a rocky bottom), a super-light day pack, and a cashmere shawl for cold desert nights when we camp in a tent, and a light scarf to throw over my head whenever it is needed. We are all a bit apprehensive about all those narrow steps down inside the tombs. I have been practising and have managed over 130 steps most days. I think it is the dark rather than the number that will prove the challenge. We have said to each other we will do what we can!
Refreshed and relaxed after my holiday I have returned to a riot of colour in my garden. The pink of the agastache and the dusty-salmon eupatorium are magnificent and thrusting 1.5 metres high, spiked here and there with deep-blue salvia, and the silvery tasselled tops of the grasses. I will have to hurry to make a final batch of pesto as the basil is starting to go to seed. Already there is a sense of the season changing. On my walk this morning the air was cool and there was a strong scent of damp eucalyptus.
Since returning home I have welcomed the opportunity to catch up with friends and family, to eat some memorable dishes, even some I have cooked myself, and to attend events. Most recently I made two visits to the National Gallery of Victoria to admire the very varied special works that are part of the NGV Triennial. I urge any art lover to visit the NGV International to enjoy some amazing art. The Triennial continues until mid-April so there is time to plan for it.
Just before I settle into 2018 I must recount a late highlight of 2017.
Is there anything better than joining dear friends and heading to a comfortable retreat, to really talk? To discuss weighty or frivolous topics as well as cook and eat and drink together. I did this just before Christmas and we ate at Annie Smithers’ du fermier in Trentham. The best rump steak with béarnaise and pommes lyonnaises I have ever eaten. A big claim, but true.
After lunch we were invited to view Annie and her partner’s newly-acquired property. It was jaw-droppingly amazing.
Its natural spring is already being used for kayaking and swimming. It is to be stocked with trout. The property has old sheds with massive hundred-year-old timbers, permitting secure storage of stuff and the garaging of a huge ride-on mower. It has several outbuildings that offer a multitude of possibilities, from classes to celebrations. The vegetable gardens are planted with the widest range of edibles, all growing well in the magnificent deep soil the colour of crumbled chocolate cake. The geese are pets, and are not for sale or consumption and have names. And there is a comfortable house and an ambitious landscaped garden plan for the future.
My tips – plan it well. Do as much shopping as you can right now, not two days beforehand.
Abandon unrealistic menus that would be achievable if you had three kitchen-hands and a refrigerator twice the size of the one you own. Just because it is Christmas most people can still only eat the same quantity of food as the day before. And the shops do not close for a month – maybe 2-3 days at most. There is a Christmas Day menu in my book The Cook’s Table with a rather fancy stuffed duck galantine (see above) which can be completed several days before Christmas Day. And this book includes enjoyable menus for different occasions and each one has a timetable intended to remove the stress.
Holiday memories are fading as I get back into the ups and downs of real life.
Required to follow a ‘white diet’ for five days because of a fairly standard medical procedure, I discovered just how devastatingly boring it is to exist on white bread, poached chicken or fish, and eggs. All perfectly delicious ingredients if cooked with herbs, and accompanied by savoury vegetables, salads and excitingly spicy side dishes. I found I was happy with a poached or boiled egg for breakfast (I did look longingly at the spinach, or the parsley), but day after day a white bread cheese sandwich, and a plainly steamed or poached piece of fish with a boiled potato, kept me alive but not delighted. It was only five days and I reflected on those who do not have my usual options, or even those who choose these options.
After listening to a podcast on BBC Food I bought a copy of First Bite – how we learn to eat by Bee Wilson, and found it fascinating. It did confirm some of my own most strongly-held beliefs. Firstly that eating is a learned behaviour and as such eating habits can be changed. And that change is most likely as a result of example, enthusiasm and patient exposure to good food. (Just as we are doing with the Kitchen Garden Foundation movement).