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Monday
Nov152010

A taste of fine dining

I’m sure we enjoy experiences more intensely if we have to wait for them.

I haven’t, over half a century of life, had much experience of ‘fine dining’. Unless you count the hundreds of family meals we have had, complete with gorgeous food from all sorts of different countries, accompanied by great wines and good conversation. And I do, count those I mean. They are my very favourite kind of meal.

This week, however, I experienced a different kind when our older son and his girlfriend shouted my husband and me to dinner at a legendary Melbourne eating establishment to thank us for letting her live at our place. We felt that we were the ones to benefit from this living arrangement, but we accepted with enthusiasm, including their stipulation that we had to have three courses and wine.

I was expecting something a little starchy, the bowing and scraping of wait staff, stiff linen on the tables and heavy silver cutlery. What we got was very different. An industrial type of space, crammed with tables, arty light fittings, and cutlery none of which matched.

Obsequious staff would have made me a bit uncomfortable. Here, they were anything but – they were courteous, so knowledgeable about the myriad dishes we consumed that I wondered if they had whipped them up themselves, and provided just the right amount of attentiveness. They took our wine bottle away between refills (the convenience of not having to juggle around full bottles on a small table!) and appeared at our elbows, as if by magic, every time our glasses looked as though they might need a top up. They were there when we wanted them, actually just before we realised we wanted them, and not there when we wanted privacy.

It didn’t feel snobby and exclusive; I felt spoiled and comfortable. They provided a hospitality style that seems to me uniquely Australian – helpful and polite with just a hint of cheek. It wasn’t about poshness; it was all about the food.

Something I have wanted to do before I die is to sample a degustation menu (although I have problems with this word, which is too close to ‘disgusting’ for my liking) at a really good restaurant. I decided this was the night, and we both went for the menu selection where you get a dozen or so tiny courses – several appetizers, a few entrees, two or three mains, a couple of desserts.

I wish I could remember enough about the dishes to do them justice. There were flavours and textures I had never dreamed of. Something that looked like a delicate, white prawn cracker and tasted of parmesan cheese. Pumpkin seeds with a sweet and salty crust, in a tiny silver dish. Warm abalone soup with frozen sweet corn. The most miniscule slice of Mandarin duck, perfectly pink and succulent. A small nugget of Wagyu beef. Baby beet salad. Rhubarb and strawberry sorbet on sheep’s milk yoghurt. A rich chocolate Grenache with violet ice-cream and clove meringue.

For all they were so little, each dish had four or five different components. And the spacing of the many offerings was just right – plenty of time between to chat and to savour the flavours.

We were there for four hours. We had an absolute ball. We were like a couple of kids in a candy shop, and our lovely waitress wasn’t at all snooty or condescending about our excitement; she seemed to take pleasure in it.

We were intrigued, however, by the clientele. One, they were young. Really young. What were they doing there – how could twenty-somethings possibly have saved up enough money in their short lives to go to such a place? There must be a lot of young adults around with plenty of disposable income.

Two, they didn’t look as excited as we felt. The two young women at the table next to us looked positively bored and spent the entire evening texting on their mobile phones.

There was no part of me that envied them. At the risk of sounding like a complete old sour puss, if they eat at a place like this now, what have these young people to look forward to? I positively glowed all next day and will never forget our big night out. And later in the week when we went to one of our local cheapies (cheap eating establishment in Brunswick, tautology, I know) to celebrate our younger daughter’s birthday, I had just as much fun. And at the end of a long day, my bowl of rice and dal at home gives me almost as much enjoyment as the Wagyu beef.

I wonder if people who are so loaded they can have anything, the minute they fancy it, really enjoy it? When our kids were little and we did a lot of camping, my husband had a line that he would deliver when we were sleeping under the stars or swimming under a waterfall. ‘Bill Gates eat your heart out’. He has a point.

 

Friday
Nov052010

Back in The Age with a piece about Iona

A few readers have asked how people will know when I have a new post up, given that I don't do twitter or face book. So here's the plan. I hope to post most weeks, generally towards the end of the week when I have my writing day/s. That's the plan - we'll see how it goes. Thank you to those who have visited, responded and sent emails. It's great to know there's somebody out there.

Keeping up the momentum, for the first time since May, I was in The Age last Sunday, with a faith column. Here it is:

 

The phrase I heard most often used to describe Iona is that it’s a “thin place” – where heaven and earth are separated by the barest membrane. I’ve never quite got this, but I’ve been hearing about Iona all my life, so I half expect to be disappointed when I finally get to see it for myself.

It’s a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland. At various times it has been home to St Columba and his monks (sixth century), site of a magnificent Benedictine abbey and nunnery (thirteenth century), and scene of the rebuilding of said, ruined abbey, from the 1940s till now.

It continues to be a place of Christian pilgrimage, with an ecumenical community based there that works in tough areas on the mainland and writes beautiful prayers and music used all over the world.

The aura of Iona is enhanced by the effort it takes to get there. From Edinburgh it takes two trains, a ferry, a bus, another ferry.

During the few days I am there, I join a group for a ‘pilgrimage’, walking 10 k’s around the island. There are only two roads, so we soon strike into the trackless bogs and cliffs and hills. The rest of the group is chatty, but I don’t want to have to make conversation. There is too much to drink in. The soggy ground that sucks at my blundstones. The tiny wildflowers scattered generously in the springy grass. The shaggy brown bull that straddles our path defiantly and the silly, black-faced sheep. The reservoir of peat-brown water the colour of tea. The cliffs that plunge into a sea that sparkles in early summer sun. Beaches – some of which are made up of tiny cowrie shells, others of fine silver sand, still others of smooth pebbles made of marble (allegedly the oldest rock in the world) that fit snuggly in my palm and find their way into my pocket and then my suitcase and end up on my desk in Melbourne.

The twice-daily worship in the Abbey feeds my soul. The history of the buildings fascinates me. But the strongest, strangest magic I find there is in the land itself. Despite having lived most of my life in India and Australia, it feels as though I have come home.

I’m still not sure what “thin place” means. What I do know now, though, is that walking alone on the edges of the island, across wide-open grasslands to the beach, I felt as though I had finally made it to Narnia – CS Lewis’ fantasyland I spent my entire childhood trying to stumble into, the world I still think of when I try to imagine heaven.

And so I travel back to life in Melbourne, with my Iona pebbles and my memories of soaring delight. Sometimes, going on pilgrimage to a thin place, a holy place, is what it takes to remind us that joy, breathtaking beauty and foretastes of heaven are to be found wherever we are.

Tuesday
Nov022010

Cup Day

It’s Cup Day in Melbourne – warm one minute when the sun comes out – overcast and cool the next with threatening rain. At our place we’re celebrating by spending extra hours in front of our computers. Pre-exam time, all that Cup Day provides is more hours to study.

Two of the kids are in the throes of final assessments of a final year at uni. One has year 11 exams looming. The Yackandandah member of the family has her own stresses as she prepares her year 12s for their history exam. The man of the house always has thousands of words to compose in the form of talks, sermons, speeches and lectures. Me, I just grab any time I can to write.

But last night we got away from it all at the Forum with Clare Bowditch, and that was quite enough excitement for one weekend.

I’d never been to the Forum. Walked past often enough on the way to Fed Square or Flinders Street Station – checked out the weird, baroque external décor, wondered what lay within. Now I know, and it’s more weirdness. Of the coolest kind.

Close to the stage is an open area where patrons can stand, under a deep blue dome of sky, strung with stars and constellations. Walls are decorated with classic life size statues of naked men, old-fashioned lanterns, ornate balconies and décor reminiscent of stalactites.

Back from the standing only area are rows of booths with wide tables for drinks and deeply padded seats. You could sleep here it’s so comfortable. Further back still are rows of seats looking like they came from Kings College Cambridge – high backs, cushioned, with a narrow strip of table where you would put your hymn book if you were in church.

Bowditch isn't on till 10.45 - way past my bedtime. But she is worth the wait. The support acts were worth listening to, but the crowd wasn't really engaged. The minute Bowditch and her band The New Slang burst on stage, all that changed and there was rapt attention. She had us eating out of her hand.

I’ve been a Bowditch fan from way back before she became big. I know all the words to all the songs and sing along happily. Her new album is rockier than her previous ones, but it works because it is her and the lyrics are clever and the melodies and harmonies are full of surprises and the musicianship is faultless. It works particularly well on the big stage in a big venue. Her big personality works well there too. Previously I had seen her in more intimate places like the Northcote Social Club and I had wondered about the great cavern of a major city venue. I needn't have worried.

Past midnight she played her last song, and we stretched and blinked and filed out to a late night city I rarely see – buzzing with life, people drunk and sober and high, girls in stilettos and skimpy dresses, guys in packs.

I can’t sleep for the stimulation. Eventually, of course, I do, and today is another day. A slow start, quiet streets, kids all home, tapping away on their computers, hunched over their books. We’ll stop for some lunch and then maybe again to watch the Cup. And all day I’ll have Clare Bowditch’s songs on the brain and memories of the cavernous, magic Forum. A treat to see me through another week.

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