I believe we have had a thawing of tensions between my digital camera and my dongle and this means, I am going to take advantage of this to upload about Australia! I’ve been home a month now and it feels partly like I’ve never been away. It seems so long ago, partly because it appears inconceivable in this weather that I could have been so warm so recently!!
I have started my recollections with Melbourne for a number of reasons. Firstly, I loved it. I adored Melbourne and it was as I reached Melbourne and the Yarra Valley, that I understood why people want to make a home in Australia and why so many people don’t even bother to come home! I have always heard people talk of ‘big skies’ and assumed they were foolish, metaphorical-obsessed types but now I’ve seen it. I’m a convert. The skies are truly bigger out there! I could have quite happily have stayed there forever but I had a wedding to get to and it wasn’t a short distance away!
I arrived in Melbourne on a Saturday afternoon in late November, a little overwhelmed from my bustling introduction to Australia in Sydney and jet-lagged in a way I didn’t know was humanly possible! I flew via Tiger Airways; when I advised people this, they kept raising eyebrows and although the flight was fine, I think I knew why when coming into Arrivals. I have seen many airports over the last couple of months, at one time I felt I could write a book on them, but arriving into Melbourne airport via the ‘Tiger Arrivals Area’ was an entirely new experience. As we disembarked, it was drizzling and I instantly felt at home after the scorching sun of Sydney. We walked down a walkway for what felt like 10 miles, people pushing into people and old ladies routinely falling over until we reached our destination. The Arrivals area or what turned out to be a corrugated steel shed with a revolving door and 2m of luggage conveyor belt. I’ve been in cattle sheds with more interior design quality. It seemed like something out of a war film and once I’d grabbed my bag, I moved in a hurry through the revolving doors, situated in a wall of barbed wire, and grabbed a taxi.
I was staying with dear friends of my parents. Claire had been by first babysitter, back in 1985, and our fathers had worked together at one time but we hadn’t seen each other in years and I was a little nervous. I got a train to Lilydale, where interestingly Dame Nellie Melba is buried, and they picked me up and drove me home to their house in Seville. Not pronounced like the orange!
This is Yarra Valley country and it was absolutely breathtaking. Eagles, mountains, miles of forest where you could quite clearly see the devestation wrought by the forest fires of 2009 and wombats and spiders that would quite happily kill you for fun. I felt instantly refreshed by the green and lush countryside and also by the fact that it rarely stopped raining.
My absolute highlight of food in Melbourne was the Queen Vic Markets. I had heard about them but I wasn’t prepared for how amazing they would be. I just wish I lived next door so I could do all my shopping there!! I took a tram from the main street in Melbourne and jumped off at the very last minute thanks to the booming voice of the man next to me announcing each stop for his own enjoyment. It was a beautiful hot day and the outside of the market has a beautiful old sign that was slightly reflective in the sunlight and I was stood a little too close to:
A veritable warehouse the size of 3 football pitches, the Queen Vic Markets is the stuff of foodlovers’ dreams. Built in 1978 and covering 7 hectares, each football pitch size hall holds different produce. The first I entered was the Meats and Fish Hall. This was packed from floor to ceiling with gleaming fish of every shape and size, so fresh they looked like they might squeak if you rubbed your finger on. There was every time of mollusc and shellfish. Huge lobsters, beautiful crabs like the ones in the picture below that look like they have cute little black eyes. I’m sure this is an extremely well developed camouflage, predator-tackling aspect but it did look sweet! There were prawns the size of rugby players’ thighs and oysters like dinner plates.
On the other side of this cavernous shed were the Meat stallholders. Most locally sourced and with beautiful pieces of the freshest meat for very little money. There were some stalls with exotic meats (well exotic for us!) e.g. kangaroo or emu. But the overriding message was that these people cared about the food they were selling and they were selling it at its best to people who knew what they were buying. The aisles were full of these two tiered trolleys, some with children sitting in the front, and they were piled high with the freshest ingredients obviously intended for that night’s supper.
I moved on from the Meat and Fish Hall into the Fruits and Vegetable one and it is equally cavernous although more open-sided. The heat of the day brings all the smells of ripening fruit to the fore and I could smell peaches and mangoes and oranges. It was delicious. I bought a bag of Victoria cherries to eat as I walked around. The Hall was full of schoolchildren filling in clipboards on the fruit and vegetables being sold and I thought what a wonderful school outing that would be! Far better than visiting another Roman Fort in the rain!
The final hall was the Deli Hall and this was where I found my personal heaven. I walked from stall to stall openmouthed and wishing that I hadn’t such a long, hot day in front of me so I could buy everything and take it home! There were stalls full of dips and antipasti, such as smoked salmon rolls stuffed with cream cheese, and pickles and charcuterie. There were stalls stacked high with bread and cakes and more cheese stalls than I think I have ever seen in one place, and I have seen a lot of cheese!
I stopped at one of the bakery stalls to buy a pastry filled with chocolate and custard and was served by a very cheerful man wearing a Liverpool FC football shirt and we had a chat about the season (my knowledge extending to it hasn’t been very good and a man called Hodgson may be to blame)! He agreed to pose for a photo, which due to my inability with a camera is extremely blurry, but he was such a nice man and made me feel like home wasn’t so far away so I have uploaded him for posterity.
Along the one wall of the Deli Hall was a range of fast food outlets. Not fast food like we are used to, no greasy burgers or chips, the most beautiful sandwiches and chinese dim sum and I decided to take a bratwurst outside to eat in the baking sun where I met a nice old man who I had a chat with about the state of the world economy. As with everybody I met in Australia, his daughter/son/brother/neighbour/dogsitter had lived in England at some time and he was keen to talk about it. I was more than happy to chat so we whiled away an hour in the sunshine.
Another day, Claire and I went for lunch at the Yarra Valley Dairy. I had eaten large quantities of the Persian Feta at their house during the entirety of my stay and so Claire thought I would like to see where it was made and see some of the other cheese they make. We had a cheese board for lunch overlooking the valley and we tried a very soft cow’s milk with herbs and garlic, the persian feta (which I could eat every day forever) and two goat’s milk pyramids, one fresh and one more aged and rolled in charcoal. They came with a choice of pickle, we went for the exceptionally memorable ‘beetroot and orange’ and a large pile of crackers and fresh bread. I could have eaten it over and over.
The shop was piled with all of the things you’d expect from a farm shop with lovely bread and wines as well. I bought a bar of their own goat’s milk soap scented with lavender and several tins of the feta to bring home. I know I keep going on about it but it tasted like no feta I’ve ever known before. The combination of the olive oil and the herbs and spices it was infused with was delicious but the texture and the flavour of the actual cheese itself was heavenly. It wasn’t salty like normal feta but so creamy and fresh flavoured. If I could buy it in the UK, I would, alas it’s only available in the US, Hong Kong and UAE at the moment!
These weren’t the only food highlights of my stay in Melbourne, I had some wonderful meals with Claire, Geoffrey and the children but the one other that really shines out as a memorable part of my stay is the meal we had at their neighbours house. Claire had missed the wedding of their daughter to come and fetch me from the train station and to take Emma to a party and so they very kindly invited all of us, including me, to a BBQ at theirs on the Sunday afternoon. We arrived at tea time and no sooner had we arrived, a glass of wine was pressed into our hands. We ate the most delicious hunk of beef from the BBQ and I have included below the recipe for the salad that I enjoyed so much I had to ask for the recipe. The colours were so striking and the flavour so refreshing. They were so friendly and really confirmed the idea we have of Australians being so welcoming and friendly. It was such a lovely afternoon.
Von’s Butternut Squash, Goat’s Cheese and Spinach Salad
(this isn’t an exact copy because it’s been so long but I think it went a little like this)
Roast a butternut squash (and/or perhaps a sweet potato) and a couple of red onions until they are soft and sweet. Tip spinach into a mixing bowl, crumble over some toasted pine nuts, add the squash and the onions and crumble over a soft goat’s cheese. Mix up a dressing with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and pour over the top. Scatter all over a serving dish.
Queen Vic Markets: http://www.qvm.com.au/
Yarra Valley Dairy: http://www.yvd.com.au/index.php