Monday, September 20, 2010

Captain Danny's Lobster Thermidor

Things I like about Sydney No. 35: Lobster Thermidor

Last night, Captain Danny (a moniker he earned whilst we were on a canal boat holiday in Yorkshire some moons ago and somehow fitting here in waterside Sydney) made me my first Lobster Thermidor.

Lobster Thermidor.

A phrase that makes me think of Scott Fitzgerald cavorting on the Riviera with Zelda. Or of Diaghilev wooing Nijinsky. Or of Evelyn Waugh trying to impress Nancy Mitford, hoping his wit will outshine his middle class boorishness.

Lobster Thermidor.

The sort of entree that Noel Coward and Princess Margaret were always throwing down their necks at intimate soirees on Caribbean islands in the 50s. I bet it's what Roger Federer eats when he lunches with Anna Wintour (although she just has the salad).

Lobster Thermidor.

The French invented it in the 1890s, brash Americans ordered it all over Europe in the 1920s, Bulgarian oligarchs are gobbling it up in the 2010s. Lobsters - still very much a status symbol and like champagne, priced astronomically out of proportion to their true worth. Lobster Thermidor clings valiantly on to its status as a dish for special occasions only.

But why thermidor?

I wanted to know. And now I do. Sort of. It's all rather complicated. The recipe is named after a play by Victorien Sardou which was in turn named after a summer month in the French Republican Calendar (who knew there was one?) which was in turn named after the Greek word for heat. The Thermidorian Reaction was a revolt in the French Revolution against the excesses of the reign of terror and it ended the most radical phase of the revolution. (Sardou is best known for La Tosca, a play plundered with great success by Puccini but called "an empty-headed ghost of a shocker" by pompous old George Bernard Shaw. Offenbach, Massenet and Saint-Saens all wrote incidental music for Sardou's plays - a pretty impressive list of collaborators). Lobster Thermidor was created by the chef at Marie's, a Parisian restaurant near the Comedie-Francaise where Sardou's Thermidor opened in 1894.

So it is named to celebrate the end of the scaffold (and the opening of a play). And ironically, to make the wretched thing, you have to commit cold-blooded murder....

We bought our live lobster at Sydney Fish Market. The fish market here would have been the subject of its own blog as a thing I like about Sydney but for the fact that it is a) impossible to park there b) overrun with tourists and seagulls and c) rather shoddy. Yes, it's a treasure trove of fish, an Aladdin's cave of seafood, but unless you go there early on a weekday morning, it's always rather overwhelming. And as Captain Danny is the fish expert in this household (he knows a sparkling eye on a mackerel when he sees one) I always end up meandering about outside the market looking after Sniff and watching people stuff their faces with deep fried calamari whilst the Cap'n peruses the goods.

Armed with a tightly wrapped live lobster and a rather large snapper for the main course, we head home from the fish market contemplating the brutality that lies ahead.

The most humane way it seems to kill a lobster is to put it in the freezer for a couple of hours so that when you attack it with a large knife it's already either dead or numb to the pain. So Captain Danny duly placed Mr. Lobster in the freezer. When he brought him out two hours later there was still the faint wriggling of limbs to be discerned so back he went to his icy grave. That extra half an hour seemed to do the trick and when he next emerged Mr. Lobster seemed dead to the world.

Unfortunately, Australian lobsters seem to be markedly different from those described in Leith's Fish Bible (which really should be renamed Captain Danny's Fish Bible) where Ms Leith describes a certain cross on the lobster's carapace which conveniently marks the spot at which to drive your knife in for the deadly blow. Mr. Lobster bore no such markings. Captain Danny had to plunge unguided into the heart of the beast. Here he is delivering the coup de grace.

There followed some grunting and puffing (from Captain Danny not the lobster) as the knife sliced through all that knobbly exoskeleton before two halves of lobster were presented ready for their thermidorisation.

Captain Danny is a dab hand at making a roux which is lucky because you need one for Lobster Thermidor, along with a whole heap of fresh herbs (chervil, parsley, tarragon) some mustard, some parmesan and some secret ingredients which the Captain refused to divulge. (He also refused to divulge how much Mr. Lobster cost).

My culinary skills don't extend to white sauces. Brown ones, red ones, yellow ones, green ones, fine. But those white ones scare me.

Mr. Lobster was chucked into a pan with some shallots and, no doubt, this is French cuisine after all, heaps of butter before I was banished from the kitchen and excluded from the mysteries of Lobster Thermidor. I waited with bated breath, sniffing out delicious aromas, trembling with the excitement of it all. Perhaps I would spontaneously become Noel Coward with my first mouthful...

Then it appeared. Captain Danny's Lobster Thermidor. In all its glory (and matching the tablecloth I would like to add...).

I can only say it was a triumph, each delicious mouthful a double-edged sword - a marvel but never to be repeated. Mr. Lobster could last only so long. This is why it is such a special dish - there's never enough. You're always left wanting more.

I will leave you with the comforting thought that, although Mr. Lobster had to sacrifice his life for our momentary pleasure, he was at least eco-friendly and came from a good family...Mr. Lobster, we thank you. We salute you.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The remembrance of tidal pools past

Things I like about Sydney No. 34: Tidal pools.

There are many tidal pools in Sydney for those too terrified to venture out into shark-infested waters. If you have followed my recent advice and walked from Bondi to Clovelly you will have seen a whole bunch of them. Also known as ocean baths, tidal pools are cut into the base of cliffs and rocks at the edge of many Sydney beaches - thirty between Palm Beach and Cronulla alone - providing all the thrills of swimming in the ocean within a safe, confined space. Some of them date back to the ninteenth century and these earliest ocean baths were built because swimming at beaches in daylight hours was illegal until 1903. Furthermore, landowners didn't want swimmers near their properties and they frequently had them arrested. Many of the later tidal pools were built  by unemployed labour during the depression - swimming was and is a free activity after all.

There have been many photographic studies made of all these tidal pools, entire exhibitions dedicated to them, articles extolling them, theses written about them: this is emphatically a city obsessed with its prime waterside location. As a reluctant swimmer (and Sydneysider) I am hardly qualified to join in this chorus of adulation.

Which is why I have picked my favourite ocean pool as being one over here on the North Shore, in Tambourine Bay.  It is a tidal pool with no tide. A bath with no bathers. A swimming pool with no water. A remembrance of tidal pools past.

 As you can see, this tidal pool needs (to quote the local Council's newsletter) "extensive repairs". There certainly can be 'NO DIVING' in the foreseeable future. Its blue paint has peeled, its measuring stick, optimistically warning of depths of up to 1.5 metres, remains permanently dry and a boat is docked on the pool's bed as if haphazardly thrown to its fate. The occasional heron stalks past its beached bow,  leaving scratchy footprints in the dirt, but otherwise nothing larger than a crab takes the plunge.

I think it is probably the local scouts who are responsible for the editing of the warning signs around the pool, for there, over to the left, stands the 1st Tambourine Bay Sea Scouts hut. Who can resist scratching out an 'l' in order to change pool to poo? Not the sea scouts, oh no!

The ghostly white handprint on the following sign is palely contradicting the statement that "depth changes due to tidal movement"....

....for the tide is long gone. These days, the sea scouts have to banish all hopeful thoughts of swimming from their minds.

The wrack and ruin of Tambourine Bay's tidal pool seems to have been both swift and thorough. How soon the things of man can fall and decay. Or in this case the things of woman - for Tambourine Bay was named after a notorious prostitute called Tambourine Nell who hid out in the bay, on the run from the police, setting up camp and managing to elude captivity for quite some time. This was before tidal pools and sea scouts and me and Sniff and you and blogs. Nevertheless, I feel sure that, one day, whilst staring out to sea and pondering her future, Tambourine Nell saw a heron stalking across the shoreline, identical in every way to the one I saw this week making a serene and dignified journey away from the confines of the tidal pool.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bondi to Clovelly Coastal Walk

Things I like about Sydney No. 33: The Bondi to Clovelly Coastal Walk

Everyone and their dog should do the Bondi to Clovelly coastal walk if they come to Sydney. Natalie and I did it yesterday on a rather gloomy, grey day with Sniff tagging along. It was bracing and rejuvenating. Highly recommended.

We started at the world-famous Bondi Beach at about 11 in the morning. At this time the sun was still pretending that it was going to shine all day long and groups of teenagers were hanging about taking endless photos of each other in a narcissistic orgy of self-reflection. A few foolish surfers were out in a rather flat sea, occasionally gliding into shore on a less than impressive wave. They're more fun to look at on shore frankly, walking down to the beach with their youthful healthiness and their wet suits rolled down to the waist. This can occupy you for a couple of refreshing minutes before heading off on the walk, or alternatively you can buy a cup of coffee from the strange Spanish doughnut shop (or rather, as they would have it, a chocolateria) opposite the car park as Natalie did. Churros I think they're called (the doughnuts that is).

Avert your eyes from the disaster that is the coastline to your left - hideous rows of hideous houses built with complete disregard for aesthetics - and head off to the right down the well-trodden boardwalk up towards Icebergs, a fancy club/restaurant where, if you hadn't just started your walk, you would be wise to sit down inside its fancy glass-walled bar and drink a couple of glasses of sparkling wine whilst drinking in the view. (It's not as expensive as it looks. Or was that just because when I was there my friend Fry from San Francisco was paying...most probably). You can see the entire beach, as below.

If, like us, you have only just started and it is still too early for a cocktail press on. You're headed for a small white sandy beach called Tamarama. According to Daniel, Tamarama used to be the gay beach. He sunbathed there when young and beautiful. According to Natalie, it is now the beach where the models and soap stars hang out. So still for the young and beautiful but now they're straight. This just goes to prove that it's us homosexuals who always get there first...

On the track to Tamarama you pass some brilliant rock formations on both sides of the track. I was too busy talking to take any photographs of them so you'll have to take my word for it. I managed to take this photo of the sea. (I should mention that the sun had now disappeared almost completely, never to reappear, and that the wind was rising, which didn't unfortunately give rise to bumper waves. We ran into the owner of Natalie's gym who was out with his board and he told us that the surf was distinctly poor. I would of course like to pepper this blog with lots of surfing terms but find that I don't actually know a single one....).

You'll realise that lots of buff bodies are constantly jogging past as you continue your leisurely stroll. So this is where they all are, you think to yourself. They certainly don't look like this on the streets of Greenwich....Hmmmm....perhaps it's time to move.

You'll also realise that the buff bodies are often accompanied by aggressive dogs. It seems that it's not enough to look butch, you have to have a butch-looking dog to reinforce the macho image (and we're not just talking the men here). This necessitates the constant recalling of Sniff in order to put him on the leash so that he doesn't get his head ripped off by a pit-bull. And there were at least two dogs that were more than happy to decapitate him given half a chance.

Because it was out of season all the beach facilities - the small cafes and surf shops - were closed as we made our way round the track. Bronte, the next destination, was looking particularly forlorn. A group of foreign teenagers, about twenty in all, stood in absolute silence, staring out at the sea, as Natalie, Sniff and I meandered past, as if 'glamoured' by vampires (True Blood fans). Decidedly eerie.

Despite the high density of housing along this walk, building after building clamouring to get some of that waterfront view, and despite the high density of foot traffic along the path, we spotted three Superb Fairy Wrens and a New Holland Honeyeater darting in and out of the coastal bushes, neither of which I ever see in the reserves around Greenwich.

Bronte has a few cafes up the road from the beach and we decided to stop for lunch. Which was fatal really because once we'd eaten the mammoth portions Australia thinks is lunch and once the sky had become even gloomier and the temperature had dropped we decided to return to Bondi rather than to carry on round the coastal track. We wimped out, folks.

If we had continued we would have walked through Waverley cemetery which is a magnificent place to be buried. Buffeted by sea winds and spattered with sea spray, the Australian poet Henry Lawson lies here alongside an aviator pioneer called Lawrence Hargreave. It was established in 1877 but you can still be buried here (as long as you have shedloads of cash). I took the following pictures of Waverley on another trip down the coastal walk with Daniel (pre Sniff).

And once beyond the cemetery you will find yourself in Clovelly, which is a fabulous snorkelling spot and the best place for lunch.

The only problem with the Bondi to Clovelly walk is that, unless you have some poor sap willing to drop you off at one end and pick you up at the other, there is nothing for it but to walk back the way you came. You certainly aren't going to brave those waters without a fleet of lifeguards on your tail. There were two shark attacks within one week at Bondi last year and one of them resulted in some poor surfer having nothing but a bit of skin connecting his left hand to his arm...

Let's play spot the shark:

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Spring is springing.

Things I like about Sydney No. 32: The springing of Spring.

I was never much one for noticing the seasons. Winter or summer, living in London always seemed pretty much the same to me: often grey, often wet, with very occasional unpredictable brilliantly bright days scattered around like dropped pennies. And as, increasingly, the seasons aren't behaving as they should anyway, with weather forecasters constantly harping on about unseasonably hot winters or freezing wet summers, why should I pay any attention to the four dividing quarters of the year? I'm not a farmer after all, rather a humble musician and composer, frequently holed up in a theatre somewhere, and, in darkened auditoriums, it's always winter.

This seasonal blindness of mine used to extend further afield than London. For instance, I didn't ever think to plan summer holidays in appropriate summer countries on appropriate summer beaches or winter holidays skiing or chasing after some winter sun. Instead, Daniel and I tended to drift where the mood took us, irrespective of the season. Venice in December and the Queensland rainforest in January - both times considered to be crazily 'out of season' - were however huge hits: empty of tourists, consequently fabulous.

Another instance of my old seasonal myopia: whenever I used to come across descriptions in books of the seasons I always felt them to be a hackneyed device, merely inserted to increase the author's word count for the day, rarely essential to the plot and often just an excuse for a bit of cheap allegory. Oh, it's spring, and as the flowers burst forth our characters are moving onwards and upwards with their lives! Ah, it's winter and as the snow falls our hero feels oppressed and downhearted, smothered by a blanket of sorrow!

But then, back in 2004, early spring to be exact, everything changed.

Daniel and I acquired a long and thin garden in Islington whose upkeep had to be kept up (and to the high standards of its previous owners at that). My seasonal blindness vanished as if lasered away by the eye doctor. I began to pay attention to those budding flowers and ripening vegetables of spring (after all, I'd, God-like, planted them); or to the fluctuating numbers of starlings feeding on our left-overs and bread crusts in winter; or to the falling of leaves in autumn which would need to be raked up, bagged, and hauled through the house to the front drive for collection on a specified third Thursday of the month. I began to join in those conversations when people discussed the unseasonality of things ("My crocuses have come up five weeks early this year." "Did you hear that the Swallowtail Butterfly still hasn't been spotted and it's nearly August?" "Our apples have been destroyed by these early winds." and so on and so on). And by 2008, just before we left for Australia, I could tell you exactly when and where everything in the garden grew and when they died and in which part of which season they did so.

Now, however, I am all at sea again. Just when the rhythms of life (they're a wonderful thing, Sweet Charity fans) and I were in sync, just when Nature and I were talking from the same (atheist) hymn-book, everything got turned upside down and I came to Australia. Where all is topsy-turvy. Where summer is winter and spring autumn. Where people look forward to their long holidays in December and batten down the hatches in July. Where no-one bloody told me that winter DOES exist and that it lasts just as long as an English winter with the added bonus of NO CENTRAL HEATING making it colder in July than Rejkyavik in a snow-storm...

It is precisely this dreadful winter we've just endured in a house equipped with just the one tiny gas heater that has made me agog for the springing of spring as I have never been before. I have been hypersensitive to any signs that spring might be on its way. And this, folks, is what I've noticed.

Firstly, the flowering of magnolias and camellias. Camellias are now identifiable to me because of the pink camellia in our garden in London which was also known to me as a harbinger of spring. Always the first plant to bloom in Islington, camellias were the first flowers out here in Sydney too, rapidly followed, similarly as in London, by magnolias. And what a lot of them. It seems that every gardener in Greenwich (Greenwich Sydney that is, keep up) plants these bushes and trees in their front gardens. Houses which have nothing else but lawn still have a magnolia or camellia plonked in the middle of the grass. Quite extraordinary. And unfortunately quite quite boring once they've done their three weeks or so mad blooming.

Secondly, the rising of the sap means the rising of scents. There are some extraordinary smells around now. Jasmine, eucalypt, lemon tea trees...fecundity whiffed at every step.

Thirdly, the burgeoning of natives. Native plants that is. It seems as if everything has decided to flower at once. Grevilleas, wattles, heather-like things, oh I have no idea what they are all called... here are some pictures of them instead.

Fourthly, whenever Sniff and I head off into the bush for our daily walks I've noticed that the scuttling has begun. Turn a corner and the undergrowth rustles. Step up onto a rock and tails whisk away into the shadows. We're preceded by constant movement, dartings to the left, dartings to the right. This can mean only one thing. The lizards and skinks are back - three cheers for the reptiles! Hibernation is over! The moomins will be out next. (In actual fact, I spotted the first Eastern Water Dragon of the year yesterday, all three and a half foot of it, running upright as fast as it could through our garden away from the scary monster Sniff).

Fifthly, and rather alarmingly, the Sydney funnel web spider's lair has been re-built ready for spring. This particular lair is only about ten metres away from our front door on the slope I climb down daily to get to the creek. At least I'm pretty sure it's a funnel web spider lair. It looks just like the pictures of them on-line. However, as I've watched the videos of funnel web spiders to be found on YouTube I am not about to poke a stick down the burrow just to try and entice the most poisonous spider in the world out to verify its identity. I'm not familiar enough with emergency procedures in this country to invite being bitten. Come to think of it, I don't even know what the emergency number is. I know its not 999....Must do some research. But apparently, there's nothing to worry about yet for it's only at dusk in the late summer and autumn that the male spiders leave their web-lined tunnels in search of mates. Then, although they can't jump, "they can move quickly, and will rear up when irritated and make sudden lunges when striking". Lovely. The Australian Museum reassures me that there is now an effective antivenom for a funnel web spider bite and there have been no deaths since 1981...Here is a gratuitous picture of one which I am glad to say I didn't take.

Lastly, I know that spring is just around the corner because I went out the other day without a jacket on. Still had a jumper and a shirt and a scarf on, but no jacket. This is a major achievement only to be understood but those who have similarly borne a winter of hardship and NO CENTRAL BLOODY HEATING. A friend of mine here, the magnificently named Anca Frankenhauser, is Finnish and agrees with me about the Sydney winter. She has never been colder than she has been at home here in Sydney. Despite being FINNISH!!!!! FINNISH!!!!! That's how ridiculous a Sydney winter is. Don't let anyone ever tell you that Australia is hot, hot, hot. It's a myth. If anyone asks, tell them its colder than Finland and full of poisonous creatures, one of whom has just been announced as Prime Minister.

Except don't, because then no-one will EVER visit us. x