An uncultivated continent?

IMAGINE IF Captain Phillip and his charges sailed from Botany Bay into Port Jackson today. Never fear, we would be secure. The Minister for Home Affairs would quickly round up the poorly-armed marines, would-be settlers, miserable convicts and people smugglers.

Before being whisked away, the intruders might note an astoundingly “uncultivated continent”, finding oil refineries, container terminals, waterfront mansions, soaring buildings and vast urban stretches. Around the coast, they might possibly have sighted some patches of agribusiness, somewhere amid the rest being burnt.

That was the strange, industrial Australia I tried to evoke in One Continuous Picnic, my gastronomic history, published in 1982. Back then, the place was feeding on cans, frozen packets and plastic. Fresh, local foods were widely assumed to be doomed. Indigenous culture was discarded. Little nuance was needed. A “land without peasants”. We only ate on rather than of the land.

My history mentioned instances of the colonists resorting to, and sometimes enjoying, native foods. I spent a couple of introductory pages on Aboriginal eating, apologising that the existing records would require another book (and subsequent appearances include Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu, 2014).

My sole example was Western Desert people, rounded up for the British atomic tests. Relying on a paper by anthropologist Dr Richard Gould, I sketched their “complicated skills and culture which had sustained them perhaps 40,000 years in apparently inhospitable conditions”. I mentioned them, I said, to “highlight our own profoundly novel way of feeding”, contrasting their “respect for the immediate environment and the invaders’ indifference”.

In the mid-1990s, I learned about semi-permanent settlement and complex horticulture, when Marion Maddox and I wrote a book on the Hindmarsh Island affair, involving the Ngarrindjeri of the Murray Mouth.

Incidentally, such was the well-financed legal ferocity of that anti-Indigenous campaign, including Slapp writs (Strategic lawsuits against public participation), through which obsessed parties from Tony Abbott to Chris Kenny assisted John Howard into power, that, understandably, no publisher would touch our revelations.

I should not have spoken originally of an “uncultivated continent” to cover Indigenous supervision; but my main contrast was between Australia in 1982 and what I had discovered in Italy, where people still enjoyed good cooking, fresh markets, and handy gardens, orchards and vineyards.

Much more has been written about Australian food since, both about the successes before the First Fleet, and the at least partially improved prospects, but my book had established eating as historically insightful, and I stick to the broad case.

My latest contribution, Meals Matter (2020), generalises the claim to assert that capitalism has systematically uncultivated the world, in the sense of trivialising gastronomic talk, along with separating people from the soil, and imposing globalised machine production, and plastics.

I’m sure Meals Matter will also turn out to be overly-simplified in important respects. Yet I believe, again, that gastronomy can correct prevailing political and economic theory. Many of us keep trying.

Census needs another party


I haven’t laughed as much for a long time as on Census night 2016. The internet sarcasm almost converted me to lifelong tweeting.

We tried to get through for an hour,  with final responses suggesting we try again in two days.

The organisation behind #CensusFail graciously promised we wouldn’t be fined for being late.

The flood of social media comments included a photo of the IT cat inside the bureau’s pc, and suggestions they try turning it off and then on again. Others said these same people guaranteed to keep our data safe.

Undoubtedly the most historic tweet came from the man who, according to then Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2013, had “virtually invented the internet in this country”:

This is the Prime Minister that Albo predicted the other night might last a year!

According to the Sydney Morning Herald:

Census was delivered by technology company IBM using its Australian SoftLayer cloud. Figures from the Australian Government’s procurement agency AusTender show IBM was paid $9,606,725 in 2014 to design, develop and implement the “eCensus”.

IBM motto

That certainly cut the cost of scurrying Census collectors, although, as it turned out, the ABS shouldn’t have relied on IBM to handle the inevitable storm in the local cloud.

This morning, the ABS boss is trying to blame denial-of-service (DoS) attacks from “an international source”.

Kalisch says it all went smoothly, and they fended off three attacks, until a fourth about 7:30 pm, when they decided to shut the site down.

As if a government data collector mightn’t expect antagonism here or there.

But, as Age economics editor Peter Martin revealed this morning, the ABS has a “reckless” new culture at the top. (David Kalisch in so much trouble that I won’t go on about him, of all people, using “data” in the singular.)

The fact is that the ABS organised its own DoS flood of messages. That’s if we believe ABC News:

In the lead-up to census night, the ABS spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on load testing and said its servers could handle 1 million forms per hour.

Let’s do a simple sum. Let’s assume only 10 million forms. At one million per hour, that would take 10 hours, assuming everyone were nice and orderly.

Census AustraliaPerhaps not unusually, we had a small party to upload our information. After something to eat and a Barossa red, we opened up the laptop about 8:20 pm. Annoyance eventually turned to social media hilarity, and we set a date for another Census party.

What did these people think? That they could insist that everyone was legally required to participate (as, apparently, television advertising kept reminding through the evening), and not expect an after-dinner rush?

Perhaps IBM staff assumed people would fill in their forms at work. Perhaps neoliberal bureaucrats have already abolished all life’s rhythms, ridding the world of penalty rates, at least in their heads.

And you don’t think meals matter!

Christmas, a “shallow celebration”?

HERE’S A RESEARCH question – is Christmas more enjoyed in the north than in the south?

In today’s column in Fairfax papers, Wendy Squires argues that any seasonal fun is spoiled by commercialism, family conflict and an ensuing “festive funk”.

That is an increasingly common view, and I sense a growing demand for a Christmas rethink.

The disaster seems too big for my suggested survival tactic of a Champagne anti-party.

Drawing attention to an additional post-Christmas funk, Squires’ column forced me to theorise further, and to suppose the clear benefits of a mid-winter Christmas over our present “shallow celebration”.

Australians have long enjoyed the “joke” that baked turkey and plum pudding are as unseasonal as Santa Claus’s thick coat and tinselly store Muzak. Historian K.S. Inglis pointed to the colonists’ tradition “to enjoy both the heavy Christmas dinner and the absurdity of it”.

Gastronomically, however, more has to be said.

Forget the birth of Jesus, and not merely because of falling church attendances.

Historians have difficulty estimating his birth year, let alone precise date. The choice of 25 December under Emperor Constantine borrowed the mid-winter festival, presumably because the beginning of the year would be appropriate for the beginning of Christianity, too.

Christianity’s local languor has left it too like a sentimental, Dickensian festival. Concentrating on family fun is triply two-edged. Firstly, which family? One practical solution has been for a couple to join one partner’s family for lunch and the other’s for dinner or the next day.

Secondly, it’s for the children, they say. But that should be year-round. Besides, Squires points to parents who just “spent the holidays aching for children in the custody of exes”.

Thirdly, as she reports, happy snaps of elderly relatives and wide-hatted kids on the beach are more than matched by negative stories – this year, one of her mates had a seemingly irreparable falling out with his brother, and a girlfriend’s “strained marriage” finally snapped.

To family woes Squires adds the “general malaise”. Falling into a festive funk, she tends “to ponder what I haven’t, rather than embrace what I have”. She laments another year passing, and flagellates herself for what she didn’t achieve.

And worst of all I make that terrible and oh so common mistake of thinking everyone else’s life is better than mine.

People then return with their holiday stories – about broken families, and about noticing “the empty chair of a lost loved one” – and she realises that “many of those happy snaps I envied should have been captioned ‘help!’”

Squires recommends accepting the Buddhist belief that “life is suffering”. I prefer the formulation in my dear friend Suzie’s long-term email signature, which I suspect she restored especially for the season:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. ~ Philo of Alexandria

My love for Brillat-Savarin rivals M.F.K. Fisher’s, and is helped by him tackling such downers as The end of the world”, which is “Meditation 10″ in Physiology of Taste.

In “Meditation 14”, Brillat-Savarin argues dolefully that table-pleasure compensates for hunger, thirst, and pain. He asserts:

Humanity is incontestably, among the sentient beings that populate the globe, that which is inflicted with the most suffering.

His evidence is people’s unprotected bodies, poorly shaped feet, inclination to war and destruction, and a mass of maladies such as gout, toothache, acute rheumatism and strangury. In his view, the fear of all the pain pushes people to give themselves up to the “small number of pleasures which nature has allotted”.

My suspicion is that contemplative festivity works better when it’s cold, and meals are made from thinning flocks and from fruit preserved in puddings. Christmas thinking is helped by the faint cheer of carols and baubles, attempting to keep close for warmth, and the prospect, however distant, of fresh shoots.

Our Christmas made more sense a year ago in Germany when cantatas and Christkindlmärkte seemed to challenge the cold and dark.

Even and, indeed, especially in a secular state, Christmas ought to arouse what the Christian emperor wanted, new beginnings. New Year’s Eve is beaten hands down by Christmas’s gift-giving, family reunions, intense commercialism, and whatever remains of religious thought.

But we need renewal in the right season. Those Antipodeans who move to a “Christmas in July” are on the right track, trying hard to get even colder and more drab than with a six-month shift to June.

We should not have to mourn among young bodies dashing into the surf. Daylight saving was not introduced to serve melancholy. A world flowing with white peaches, raspberries and, further north, mangoes provides pure pleasure, leaving scant room for reflection.

Plum pudding at a jolly Australian Christmas, 1875

How weird is Andrew Leigh? As exposed by Annabel Crabb, culinary investigator

Kitchen Cabinet - New Season

LABOR FRONTBENCHER and “economics brain box” Andrew Leigh enjoys the same lunch every day in his Parliament House office, Canberra. A staff member, Jennifer Rayner, confirmed “it’s pretty well the only thing I’ve seen him eat.”

Training an average hour daily for marathons – he has run three so far this year – Leigh told television journalist Annabel Crabb: “I run a lot, so I can basically eat what I like.”

And so what is his “usual”? His daily indulgence is peanut butter. Every lunchtime, Andrew Leigh spreads his canola margarine and peanut butter on a white bread roll.

Why smooth rather than crunchy peanut butter? inquired Crabb. “I can eat it more quickly.”

The former economics professor organises his life according to cost-benefit analysis, he explained, and peanut butter “tastes good, and doesn’t take long to prepare”.

Why then devote so much time to running marathons? Crabb countered. He must get pleasure from them, he decided.


The senior politician said his grandfather, Methodist minister Keith Leigh, had celebrated his 50th birthday by running 50 miles, which is almost two marathons, back-to-back. He died shortly after, running up Mount Wellington in the snow, a route that Andrew Leigh repeated in his grandfather’s honour on 17 November.

Leigh’s lunchtime interview is Episode 13 of Annabel Crabb’s Canberra Al Desko, which is an online companion to her Kitchen Cabinet, a series in which a politician cooks the main course, Crabb brings a dessert, and they chat.

Her culinary reports have been condemned as “fluff” that “humanises” politicians. But such a reading certainly does not work for de-humanised Leigh. He must come near the top of the list of politicians Crabb showed to be manifestly uncomfortable in the kitchen.

Under the heading, “Junk food journalism: Why Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet is toxic”, Amy McQuire expressed her “disgust” (New Matilda, 29 October 2015). This was not my main complaint that Crabb’s vegetarianism unfairly narrows the menu. Rather, McQuire reported that the show was “about as nutrient rich as the majority of her desserts”.

For McQuire, the show represents the “insidious spread of propaganda, soft interviews with hard-line politicians”. The interviews coat “with sugar frosting” the “numerous acts of structural violence” by some of the most powerful Australians.

Agreed, her kitchen visit with former hardline border protector, now Treasurer, Scott Morrison, showed him to be not quite as freaky as I had originally thought, but that was pretty freaky. As usual, Crabb was much sharper than “fluffy”, leaving my companion fuming at Morrison’s shallow, self-satisfied theology. In her defence, Crabb does not over-grill her cooks in the manner of the 7:30 Report, but brings out their natural flavour. The politicians’ openness in the informal setting is Crabb’s own defence.

Incidentally, if we believe in “structural” forces, then Morrison surely showed himself to be victim of capitalism, authoritarianism and chauvinism, all wrapped up in the Shirelive church’s prosperity gospel.

Furthermore, Crabb’s “humanising” is indiscriminate, revealing Greens leader Richard di Natale to be a culinary star, reaching back into his Italian roots to make salami and pizze. Sharing Ricky Muir’s beloved campfire showed the four-wheel-drive and wheelie enthusiast to be an unusually earnest politician (for whom fellow Senator di Natale also admitted admiration).

Fairfax television critic Ben Pobjie found it “easy to be nauseated by last week’s KC [Kitchen Cabinet] episode, wherein Annabel had a spiffing old time cooking with Scott Morrison, trading amiable banter while carefully avoiding the topic of irredeemable evil. Crabb is generously acting as a bonus PR arm for Australia’s parliamentarians.” I go along with Crabb’s belief that she’s helping democracy, rather than joining in its typical trashing.

Law academic Sarah Keenan discovered that the show “reproduces a culture of white Australian entitlement to master and consume any and every cultural product, regardless of who it belongs to”. She went on: “As Crabb and Morrison joyfully prepare and eat the food [samosas] of the very people Morrison prevented from entering Australia, they perform their white Australian entitlement to own and consume what does not belong to them.”

Anticipating the bush tucker of Indigenous politician Nova Peris, Keenan predicted: “Crabb will devour the food hungrily, remark upon its delicious flavour and allow the nation to keep unsavoury topics like structural racist violence off the table.”

Like many of the show’s politicians, these critics reveal frighteningly little appreciation of the gastronomic basis of life. They have fallen victim to the same dehumanising institutions and inhospitable policies as the ascetic Andrew Leigh, spreading his peanut butter, not offering any to his guest, and then even refusing to eat in front of the camera because eating would not look “attractive”.


If Tony Abbott can stage show trials, so can I …

Royal Commissioner John Dyson Heydon’s damage to his own inquiry should remind Australians that their cultural warrior Prime Minister loves nothing better than a good show trial. That’s when a government uses a legal forum to expose its political enemies to cross-examination, stereotyping, ridicule and, all going well, banishment.

Always on the look-out to hit back with his perception of the enemy’s techniques, the habitually divisive Tony Abbott established a high-profile inquiry into the fatally shoddy installation of roofing insulation, which he might associate with the relatively environment-friendly Rudd Labor government.

And he established a webcasting, headline-seeking trade union inquiry, whose commissioner, Dyson Heydon, has now smugly been advertised as speaker at a Liberal fundraising dinner, thus publicly confirming his exemplary right-wing credentials. He was already known as almost a parody of a conservative High Court justice and as a writer for Quadrant, a small magazine that to this day jokingly suggests it never benefited from early CIA funding, while conceding that receiving such largesse would have been “hardly shameful”. Even a basic understanding of legal processes must recognise the need for at least a pretence of objectivity.

Tony Abbott appears to have learned the political value of show trials, if not from the twentieth-century greats, then at least twenty years ago as a backbencher close to John Howard. As the then Opposition leader, Howard arm-twisted two friendly State governments into holding Labor-punishing royal commissions that picked off an uppity woman and Indigenous activists, respectively. The two inquiries in 1995 eased his way to the Prime Ministership soon after.

Carmen Lawrence had moved into Federal Cabinet, and was mooted as a potential Labor leader. So, Howard persuaded the West Australian government to hold a public inquiry into some obscure instance of alleged political expediency. It had something to do with her possibly misleading Parliament about a confidential Cabinet discussion while she was still that State’s Premier.

I used to work (and still often do) to the soundtrack of Classic-FM, so that after four months of reports from that inquiry, I wrote to the managers of ABC News complaining that nearly every radio news broadcast, several times daily, included: “Penny Easton committed suicide four days after the tabling of the petition.” Day after day, I heard the mantra, “Four days later Penny Easton suicided.” What, I inquired of ABC News, was the relevance? Was Carmen Lawrence accused of killing Ms Easton? Why was this not cheap innuendo?

Prime Minister Paul Keating called Premier Court’s inquiry a “kangaroo court”. In a moment of exasperation, Commissioner Kenneth Marks himself complained that he couldn’t see the point. Stuart Littlemore’s Media Watch showed a commercial television reporter browbeating Penny Easton as she stood, head in hand, beside her car in a presumably private garage, just hours before her death. Perhaps that warranted an inquiry? But that wasn’t the point – Carmen Lawrence’s career had been severely damaged, and the Keating government with it.

The dirt has stuck. This very day, defending Heydon’s appointment, News Ltd’s Piers Akerman recalled “an inquiry regarding the suicide of Penny Easton 20 years ago”, an untruth helped by the ABC’s seemingly incessant repetitions. Ironically, today’s column also repeated the charge that the ABC, along now with Fairfax, was “a sheltered workshop where Leftist groupthink prevails”. Not my impression.

Especially with the inquiry being in far-off WA, Howard could seem to keep his hands clean, and the journalism was provincial, without the strength and diversity of investigative reporting now available. Howard got away with it similarly in his other inquiry in South Australia.

Those were the days when Howard called racism “racial resentment”, which he assured Australians that he “understood”. This divisiveness could be joined by incessant anti-Labor publicity by pressuring SA’s new Liberal government into holding a public inquiry into Aboriginal objections to building a bridge to a failing marina on Hindmarsh Island. I know this show trial well, because my wife and I wrote about the tussles in a book that publishers wouldn’t touch. This was entirely understandable, given the seemingly unlimited funds being used to attack “secret women’s business”, and silence any opposition. Put it this way, mining companies had much to lose, nationally, from Indigenous claims. Admittedly, the women’s supporters were more inclined to point out that Westpac stood to lose heavily if the marina developers didn’t get their bridge.

Hindmarsh Island was a fascinating story (and, despite no book, Marion Maddox has published more than one academic paper). Among fun and games, the political parties swapped sides. The incoming Liberal government’s Minister for Transport had long led opposition to the Bannon government’s bridge, and had encouraged Indigenous objections; hers was among the Adelaide business families with quiet get-aways on the island. But the Liberals quickly decided to replace the ferry with a bridge as part, it seemed, of a wider campaign to destroy Labor’s Robert Tickner and undermine Mabo Native Title legislation. Incidentally, the same SA minister’s family were big suppliers of concrete, used in transport infrastructure and mining developments.

Among research amusements, I recall ringing a top Adelaide barrister to ask why he had briefed solicitors on the inquiry (it’s usually the other way around), until he expostulated: “I’m not going to be cross-examined like this.” A bit rich from a QC, and I was only trying to confirm whether it was Howard himself who had organised the barrister’s central role. Or perhaps it was through Ian McLachlan, who was dropped from the Opposition front bench for a misleading statement about how he came by, and distributed, the women’s account, marked “Confidential”, and mistakenly delivered to his office.

Or it might have been Tony Abbott, who was Howard’s right-hand on this one, and working with a small cabal in Adelaide, where he used to fly many weekends, staying with Adelaide Review editor Christopher Pearson at his get-away at Delamere, south of Adelaide. A strong writer and editor, Pearson had swung through his life from choir boy to far Leftist to conservative Catholic who required Mass daily, and in Latin.

Post-conversion, Pearson remained openly gay and, while renouncing sexual relations, was famously sybaritic. As a relatively influential Adelaide editor, when he had summoned Abbott, who had been running the monarchist campaign, to meet for the first time, it was over lunch at an Italian restaurant in Leigh St. As the present Prime Minister reported:

We dined at Rigoni’s, an institution where Christopher appeared to be a permanent fixture, his table expanding or contracting according to the number of his acquaintances who happened to be passing by. For Christopher lunch was both an art and a science. Arguments could erupt over the correct method of cooking a bechamel sauce or the proper way to roast a duck. In life, he once wrote, “only fools fail to take their pleasures seriously.”

Dinner guests were beginning to arrive by the time we ventured unsteadily into the winter gloom of Leigh Street. Apparently I had passed my audition …

For ten years, Tony Abbott wrote a column for Pearson’s Review, just as Pearson would later help with media releases and edit books for Abbott, turn out speeches for Alexander Downer and John Howard, and contribute columns to the Australian.

As Abbott also recorded last year:

It was an unusual coupling in many ways—“arty versus hearty”, someone had warned him before our first meeting. Christopher was the aesthete; I was the athlete; he was a reformed Maoist and I was a lifelong conservative. Yet he had made it his mission to take me under his wing. Books and CDs started to arrive from Adelaide. If I was to write successfully for the Review, I needed to expand my knowledge and deepen my appreciation of the finer things of life …

Intimacy was Christopher’s natural and permanent disposition … He had no compunction about calling in the middle of a fraught week in Canberra to discuss a conversation with a doctor, an encounter with a taxi driver, or the status of white anchovies on the gastronomic table … Never having children of his own, he revelled in the role of the adoptive uncle.

The Hindmarsh Island show trial was hung on a Channel 10 report by Chris Kenny, who became another pet columnist of Pearson’s, and who also went on to work for senior Liberals in Canberra, and now as a News Ltd columnist, where he has been a bitter opponent of the ABC (his employment on Adelaide’s 7:30 Report had been short-lived).

Pearson and Abbott had ganged up to get the “political correct”, and the big break came with Kenny’s claim that Aboriginal man Doug Milera admitted that the “secret women’s business” had been fabricated.

The most astounding piece of evidence at the inquiry was the playing of Kenny’s full interview with Milera. Not surprisingly, Channel 10 refused the tapes being aired outside the commission. Likewise, Milera’s solicitors told the inquiry that, contrary to Kenny’s original report, Milera actually supported the women, and that he had been on a bender during the interview.

The full interview confirms that Milera was, indeed, so inebriated, and getting more so, as to be almost incoherent. Kenny extracted the widest possible range of claims – starting from the women’s business not being fabricated at all, to Milera having done the fabrication himself. The interview took some long period to tape, with Kenny stopping the camera with Milera needing another drink.

According to the Advertiser, the “controversial television interview with intoxicated Ngarrindjeri man Douglas Milera” was eventually found by commissioner Iris Stevens to be “fair”. Who would doubt a royal commissioner? I can only conclude that we took notes about some other tape at the State Archives. I might also observe that the show trial’s findings subsequently failed in other courts, as happened with those re Carmen Lawrence.

Presumably, Australian judges have some appreciation of the standards expected in a show trial, so that in the tradition of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and the occasional great leader closer to our times, I promise that, once running this country, I’m establishing a raft of commissions of inquiry.

They will examine such matters as:

  • Mining company involvement in Australian politics
  • The funding of the Institute of Public Affairs, Centre for Independent Studies and Quadrant
  • McDonald’s impact on town planning
  • Red Bull marketing
  • Sugar
  • And the outrageous political use of commissions of inquiry.

AFR Top 100 – the view from a restaurant black hole

We live comfortably in a restaurant black hole. Sydney critics and columnists frequently rave about places in inner-city Surry Hills, the CBD, Bondi beach and the Lower North Shore. Although we’re still in the Inner West, they rarely come near us. The hipsters have not reached out this far. More tellingly, we live in a weird gap between maps in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide.

We’re left alone in our guidebook black hole with probably 40 restaurants within an easy walk. Along with a big choice of Chinese styles, we have a sprinkling of every other necessary type, including a fine diner. Okay, it’s actually just within a map, and a long walk so that we usually drive, but I speak of Sixpenny at Stanmore.

The two chefs, Dan Puskas and James Parry, found the restaurant’s name in my One Continuous Picnic. In the second half of the nineteenth century, numerous “sixpenny restaurants” catered to the urban labour force boom in Melbourne and Sydney.

Sixpenny describe themselves as a “little restaurant”, and there’s nothing grand about it – except for their charm, sommelier Dan Sharp’s selections, and their seriously great cooking, with much from the restaurant’s backyard and even more now from their own farm near Bowral. And their crab and macadamia … take a look (that’s it above). We’re talking quietly world class.

Living in a black hole, we tend to keep recommendations to ourselves, but the secret’s leaking out, and last night they were announced as No. 8 in the Australian Financial Review’s Top 500 – with rankings of the top 100

When challenged the other day to nominate good restaurants in the city of Tallinn, and never having been there, I found online the Flavours of Estonia with that country’s Top 50 selected in a two-stage process – gathering the recommendations from restaurateurs themselves, and then importing critics to make the final pick. The Australian version merely asks the industry, and a computer.

The results reveal the method’s inadequacies. I have only been to something like 20 of the top 100, and sometimes only once to a place, but even my experience shows unevenness.

As I say, I accept Sixpenny deserves to rank at least at No. 8. I must get to Sydney’s Sepia one day, and could well believe it’s No. 1, or close to it. As well as dining twice at Melbourne’s Attica (No. 2), I had a week of Ben Shewry’s cooking when he joined me while writer-in-residenceat Stratford Chefs’ School in Ontario, Canada. So, I can confirm that Attica is correctly placed in the very top rank.

I’ve dined in two manifestations of Vue de Monde (not sure why it’s not spelled Vue du Monde), and can believe No. 6. Still in Melbourne, and not everyone’s favourite, but I used to be almost a regular lunch-goer at Cafe di Stasio at St Kilda – a great restaurant at No. 20. And then there’s Sean’s Panaroma in Bondi. I would put it higher than No. 39. But that’s far from the list’s oddest ranking.

I tend never publicly to bag bad experiences, so won’t cite a couple of over-rated places. But let’s just look at Adelaide’s top two. Both good, and Magill Estate is believable at No. 44. But Orana at No. 47? only been once, and I had some criticisms (about the need to make the space feel slightly warmer, and not relying on just one glass of champagne to last through all those fabulous introductory snippets), but surely Orana should have been placed much nearer the very top.

At least on our night, I reckon Jock Zonfrillo took Australian cooking in a new direction. Perhaps his fellow chefs have not yet had the chance to get there, or the computer isn’t all that clever, but for finally showing native foods as something supreme …

It’s expensive, so I won’t say to rush, but if you get the chance, let me know if I’m wrong.

War and peace, and Anzac theatricals

WE DID A READING recently of a play I was always told was mere escapism. The drama SV300309 (2)turned out to be slightly more significant than that, being set in an old mansion whose staff gently meet clients’ escapist fantasies, such as a trade union leader working on, and never finishing, his revolutionary tract. A ballerina dances late in the proceedings.

The play won the first Adelaide Festival of Arts play-writing competition in 1960. I was young, but enjoyed that short opening season, which was probably its last, until we gave Goodbye to Number Six its recent airing. Our interest came from its author being my grandfather, Alex Symons.SV300315 (3)

Detracting from family pride, however, the play had only won and been performed because the conservative board running that first festival had over-ruled the experts’ recommendation, which eventually proved to be one of Australia’s most enduring plays, Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year.

SV300311 (2)I attended the world premiere of that, too, put on by many of the same Adelaide theatricals some months later. We bumped into my grandparents during interval, and I still recall my grandfather’s silence, which took me many years to really understand.

The One Day of the Year is a clash between father and son over Anzac Day celebrations. By the 1950s, the national holiday (25 April) had come to represent drunken diggers (by then, veterans of at least three wars). Anzac day officially commemorated the failed and deadly campaign by Australian and New Zealand troops sitting helplessly from 25 April 1915 to 9 January 1916 on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey.

What were they doing there? A good question.

Encouraged especially by Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and John Howard, Anzac Day has in recent years become a massive, national festival. Thousands clamour for the limited tickets to the dawn service at Gallipoli itself. On the eve of this year’s centenary of the landing, our unpopular Prime Minister Tony Abbott urged everyone to get to a dawn service to show “our defiance of those who would do us harm [read “terrorists”] and we’re supporting our country’s [newly-invented “Judeo-Christian”] values and our armed forces [including those I am now sending back to Iraq]”.SV300319 (2)

Some veterans would never go near such a bun fight, including my grandfather, who was awarded a Military Cross and endured a year’s surgery that still left metal in him. The death and destruction were sufficiently painful that he left London in 1922 to live in South Australia, never to return.

No-one recalls Alex Symons ever speaking about his experiences of the so-called Great War, except for once to his daughter, Janet. Just back from an Anzac Day service during that next conflagration, she asked why he never attended. He looked pained and answered, according to my aunt’s memoir:

“It was all about the killed and the killing.” When he had to lead his men “over the top” from the trenches in the Somme the majority were killed. He and one other were wounded and lying in the mud for 48 hours before being rescued. … he said he had to live with that, knowing how many men were killed and that the action had not been of any value.

In South Australia, he became the much-loved General Manager of the SA Housing Trust, and retreated into writing “escapist” plays and a musical, several performed.

Alex’s son, my father, went off to the Second World War and only ever attended Anzac commemorations as a radio commentator. But he was beaten in any contempt for arms by my mother, whose two brothers had been psychically damaged, one of them a young fighter pilot who became a problem alcoholic, and who always went to Anzac Day reunions. In fact, when unable to work and living with us, he went to daily reunions. He was a lovely guy, his life ruined and shortened.

I could hear my mother’s anguish when I read the other day how all “9 acres of guns” had to be made non-operational, with the firing pins removed, at the annual convention of the right-wing front-group, the U.S. National Rifle Association. That’s the NRA that wants loaded guns in schools to protect from guns – a policy of “mutually assured destruction” (or MAD).

A libertarian Senator believes Australia is a “nation of victims”, unable to protect themselves with weapons. He spoke in response to the Martin Place siege, in which two hostages were killed, one by police fire. Leyonhjelm’s case seemed even sillier when, a few days later, in a Walmart in Idaho, a two-year-old killed his mother with her gun that he found in front of him in her shopping cart. From the killing rates, the highly armed U.S. is by far the greater “nation of victims”.

Whatever way it came down to me, I was left loathing militarism, an opponent of the Vietnam War, another distant venture to which a conservative Australian government sent young citizens. When I say “citizens”, 20-year-olds were conscripted but we had to wait another year to vote. It’s the half-century anniversary of that, too, by the way.

This present Anzac carry-on is not all chauvinist belligerence and calls for more “defence” spending. I have tried to avoid media coverage, but it is wall-to-wall, and I have found plenty of genuine sorrow for the killed, maimed, and forgotten. The notable absence, however, is discussion about how to end the barbarity. Where’s the pacifism?

From my reading, many libertarians genuinely oppose war. The “free” (ha-ha) market is the only legitimate power, they believe, making the military as invalid as any other non-market force. They manage to ignore, however, enormous “market” pressures from the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned against in 1961.

They also detest world government, which I am not convinced might not be an improvement on self-appointed sheriffs in continuous action (Groundhog Day meets High Noon).

Not very gastronomic, I hear you say. Where are the meals? Yes, that’s the point.

You may call it escapism, but I retreat from the horrors of war and unlimited growth (more on another occasion) to meals. Meals matter, SV300305 (2)and importantly as a rejection of armaments.

Meals are the antithesis of war. Enemies make peace at the table. The genuinely free market is not going to spontaneously combust. The land flowing with milk and honey is no scorched earth.

I contemplated such matters when planning my small birthday dinner on what also happens to be Anzac Day. It’s also the 50th anniversary of conscription for Australian males turning 20, as mentioned earlier.

It should be an anti-armaments dinner, I decided. But meals are intrinsically anti-armaments, swords left at the door.

So, I’ve just collected some anti-war buttons to be worn by diners who want.

Flat White – revelation in coffee

SV300285 (2) Just made a flat white. That flat white, there. Not my best example, but nonetheless good, because a flat white is the world’s best milk coffee. It uses the coffee well, profits from velvety milk, and balances the two to perfection. That’s if well made. I notice that global chains are now doing flat whites. The way you’d know if it were a proper flat white is that it would be a whole new experience – clearly superior to any other milk coffee. I’ve made them for people who respond: “I didn’t think I’d notice”. Others are persuaded to at least try them before adding sugar, and then don’t. I’ll provide a few notes on the making below. I became a world expert in flat whites through historical circumstances. In 2000, we moved from Adelaide (South Australia) to Wellington (New Zealand) – a wonderful city on a harbour, with the world’s best milk coffee. Okay, I’ve just returned to writing this, and with a snap of the next FW for my wife.SV300291 (2) See if I can improve my latte art before publishing this post. I can do better. A world expert, but my expertise is much less practical than historical, because the Wellington flat whites were such an obvious step up that I inquired why. Luckily, the co-founder of Supreme roasters, Chris Dillon, gave a paper on “The revolution in Wellington’s coffee culture” at a gastronomic symposium we organised there in 2001. After more research, I decided the Wellingtonians had taken up what Australians had named a “flat white” (in contrast to a “short black”, and not as milky as a caffe latte, and not fluffy like a cappuccino), and had perfected it. Ironically, the New Zealanders had benefited from a relative lack of post-war Italian immigration. While Australian Italians had developed espresso especially through the 1960s, the quality was not strong. By contrast, New Zealanders only really started espresso a decade before we got there, and deliberately learned from the rest of the world.SV300293 (2) Inspired by a cafe in Vancouver, Canada, partners opened Midnight Espresso in Cuba Street in 1989 that, in turn, helped set off a creative coffee scene. As the country’s political and cultural capital, Wellington provided a keen and discerning public. Joining other roasters, Chris Dillon and partner Maggie Wells set out in 1993 to compete on quality. They soon took up the flat white from a new cafe owner, recently returned from Melbourne, and no doubt joined other contributors in transforming Australia’s flat white into the world’s best milk coffee. In January 2012, I hazarded in the Australian Financial Review Magazine (27 January) and Dominion Post (here) that:

The flat white should soon be recognised as the single greatest Antipodean contribution to world gastronomy – so long as it’s made the Wellington way.

I could make that claim because, on one hand, Australia had not contributed hugely to gastronomy (except such natural products as macadamias and kangaroo meat, and we got a highly influential symposium of gastronomy going as early as 1984), and, on the other, I happened to have gone on a flat white hunt through Italy, France, Denmark, Germany, England, Canada and the U.S. Pacific North-West. Milk coffee was surprisingly bad, although I finally understood in Italy how a cappuccino milk should be all fluff (and no chocolate sprinkle on top). French coffee has since shown considerable improvement, benefiting from the take-up of micro-filtered milk (rather than the standard U.H.T.-tasting, so-called fresh milk). Only the baristas in Portland Oregon really knew their coffee, and could duplicate a flat white as a double ristretto, only “wet” (unfluffy) foam. Starting somewhere around 2005, the world scene had been improving, too, as Antipodean baristas took the FW to London and New York, and then France. (Don’t tell Australians, but NZ baristas were also usefully infiltrating Australian cafes. When we got back to Sydney, I had to purchase my own machine. Things have improved.)SV300295 (2) Starbucks started selling flat whites in the U.K. by early 2010, and I was silly enough to try one in London. They have just launched them in the U.S. (in March 2015). In a way, it was Starbucks’ second concession to Antipodean coffee culture – they had previously been forced to close a majority of their stores here, such was the relative espresso sophistication. One of life’s little thrills was walking out of Wynyard rail station in the Sydney CBD in 2008 to see workers taking down Starbucks signs at one of their very central, unprofitable shops. Analysing Starbucks’ almost total collapse in this country, an advertising person explained: “Unfortunately for Starbucks, what worked in the US was bitter, weak coffee augmented by huge quantities of milk and sweet flavoured syrups …For the Australian consumer, raised on a diet of real espresso, this was always going to be a tough sell.” At least by desperately advertising the drink, such chains make room for a customer’s revelatory experience provided by a real, preferably Wellington-experienced barista.

SV300306THE FLAT WHITE: A double shot of espresso, making around 30ml in a 160ml, usually tulip-shaped cup, topped with carefully “textured” or “stretched” milk (also known as “wet” or “micro-foam”, as opposed to “dry” or light, cappuccino foam), and at a hot but not burning temperature. The finishing latte art shows the New Zealand fern emblem or the similar rosetta elsewhere (I must photograph one; for the moment, another heart). Once you are getting the milk-coffee balance, the secret is attention to every step: high-quality arabica beans, not overly roasted, a week or so after roasting (and no more than a dozen days old), freshly ground; a clean machine, run for 25 to 30 seconds; starting with cold, full-cream milk in a small quantity (at most enough for three drinks); steaming that creates a vortex without bubbles; served immediately in a ceSV300300 (2)ramic (never plastic or paper) cup. Espresso requires at least a domestic version of a professional machine. Mine is a “Rocket”, aka ECM Giotto. Grinding is crucial, too, in this case a Mazzer Mini.