Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Things I like about Sydney No. 44: Nilgiri's

For my birthday Daniel bought me a cookbook called, simply, India. It has no less than 1,000 recipes in it and will no doubt become as well thumbed as one I already have called 660 Curries by the brilliant Raghavan Iyer. India is written by the fantastically named Pushpesh Pant. The last section of his massive tome is dedicated to recipes from the best Indian chefs from the ten or so best Indian restaurants around the world. No less than three of these restaurants are in Sydney and two of these are but a stone's throw from our door in neighbouring St. Leonards (as long as, that is, you throw the stone high because there's quite a hill to climb to get there).

One of these restaurants, Qmin, has recently undergone a name change for some unexplained reason (we think it's a tax dodge or a bankruptcy thing). It is now called Mace. Which reminds us of knobbly old weapons or something you spray in attacker's faces. And although Qmin was excellent our hearts have been stolen away from their doors by Nilgiri's, just that bit further up the road but worth every additional step.

The great thing about Nilgiri's, run by chef Ajoy Joshi, is that they change the menu every month to concentrate on a different area of India. Which gives us a great excuse to go at least once every four weeks. Last time we went, November, it was West Bengal. In October it was the Punjab. Last night, for December and my birthday, it was a menu revisiting all the best dishes of the year...

Nilgiri's is not very prepossessing as you can see above. Inside it is not much better although they do have a collection of over a hundred Ganesha.

But you don't come for the interior decoration, you come for the food.

We usually decide on a banquet option where you can eat bits of nearly everything for not very much money (just over 40 dollars each; and as you can bring your own wine as well it is laughably cheap. Especially compared with its London equivalents. The Cinnamon Club in London charges £75 per person for their tasting menu....). They even let us swap in dishes that we particularly want (these often involve prawns).

So, last night we opt for the banquet option, swapping in some prawns as one of the starters. I'm taking photos of everything for the blog and let slip to the waiter, who asks why I am doing so, that it's my birthday.

And thus begins a blow-out of massive proportions. For after we've tucked into our poppadoms and pickles (chilli, tamarind and aubergine) two miniature masala dosas appear.

"We didn't order those" we pipe up simultaneously. "Oh, compliments of the chef" says the waiter.

Well, it would be rude not to eat them. And they are light and delicious with a very fresh coconut accompaniment.

The two starters we did order arrive. We are not daunted. Stunning lightly peppered prawns and aromatic lamb with some handkerchief naan. All the breads are made by a broadly smiling bread specialist in full view of us all (the other chefs are hidden away behind him in a separate kitchen). He spins the handkerchief naan in ever-increasing wild circles above his head, forever stretching and pummeling.

We've now eaten three starters and are beginning to worry slightly about managing all three mains when our waiter pops up again and places ANOTHER starter on the table: "Chef's compliments for regular customers", he says. We thank him with a rather glazed look of appreciation. It is a pair of meat samosas, looking decidedly delicious...we gamely throw them down our necks, complete with the sticky sweet tamarind sauce which accompanies them.

Quaffing our wine we have a little breathing space with no surprises before the rest of our dinner turns up. The main part of it to be exact. But you're only 46 once in your life, we're going to eat the whole damn lot (except perhaps all the lentils because Daniel's not keen and all the rice because there is an enormous mound). The chicken goes, the goat goes, the cauliflower and carrots go. The naan goes. The rice diminishes. We're done. We're full. We can't move. Ever again. They'll have to hire a tractor just to get us out of here.

Except Nilgiri's isn't done with us yet. Along bashes the waiter carrying an ice-cream with a sparkler jammed into its centre doing its sparkling thing and thereby drawing everyone's attention to our table and to the fact that it is my birthday.

And here I had to give up. I'd judged myself well, I'd eaten to bursting point but could eat no more. And ice cream is my lentils. Daniel on the other hand managed to scoff the lot. He says he did it out of pure embarrassment but I'm not so sure....

They could do no more to us. We were knocked out by their kindness. Out and on the ropes. But still they kept fighting. Another waiter came by and handed me one of Ajoy Joshi's cookbooks. Which can go on the shelf alongside India and 660 Curries and Anjum's New Indian and Madhur Jaffrey's Ultimate Curry Bible...

Tomorrow we've got three people coming over for dinner. I'm going to cook Portugese.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Miniature Ponds in the Hidden Hearts of Plants

Things I like about Sydney No. 43: Miniature Ponds in the Hidden Hearts of Plants

On either side of the pathway leading up to our shack in the bush is a cultivated patch of garden. The left hand side is covered half in ferns and half in a tropical red and green plant. The right hand side is covered in spider plants. These two beds are the only bit of the entire garden which we maintain (apart from the pathway around the house on which I constantly wage a losing battle with weeds). The rest of the garden is left to nature and resembles the bush we're perched in. If we leave the two garden beds to nature, however, they become overwhelmed with the unfortunately named Wandering Jew.

Wandering Jew is "an aggressive scrambling creeper that can smother other plants as it forms a mat-like cover of the ground it occupies." Lane Cove Council, who maintain the trail running alongside the creek below our house, periodically sweep through the area pulling the creeper up, right  to the edges of our garden. So I feel obliged to carry on their good work and to do the same around the house. And as the weed has very weak roots it is a very satisfying job to do - the plant comes up easily just by yanking at any of its long many-leaved stems. Much more fun than weeding the path which leaves me with blisters and holes in my gardening gloves.

The council are currently losing the war against trandescantia albiflora (to give Wandering Jew its proper name. So-called after John Tradescant who created the Ark in Lambeth, a private cabinet of curiosities which subsequently opened to the public as the first museum in London. He is also known as one of the world's most renowned plant collectors). The volunteers are obviously slacking off as Christmas approaches.

Here's a view up to our house from the creek. You can see one end of our bird-feeding balcony.

Wandering Jew creeps along the bush floor, entirely covering everything except the rocks and trees. The Council volunteers have to work their way down the creek, on their hands and knees, putting all the weeds into large white sacks. Every time I see them I think of joining in, but then I think of the funnel-web spiders, the cobwebs of the large Golden Orb Weavers, the red ants, the Golden Crowned Snakes and I immediately dissuade myself from doing any such foolish thing.

Alongside the creek itself, here just below our house, the weed is prevented from reaching the water's edge because of the rocks forming the creek's bank. Further down, along a small channel of water that flows towards the creek, where some beautiful flowers grow in the moist soil, you can see they are completely surrounded by a carpet of Wandering Jew (it's the plant spreading out from the bottom right-hand corner of this photo).

Anyway, the battle was won against tradescantia albiflora yesterday in the patch of garden alongside our front path. Victory goes to the ferns and the red and green tropical plants. And it was whilst tending the latter that I noticed today's blog subject: miniature ponds.

Each of the tropical plants I was de-weeding had, at its reddest centre, a miniature aquatic garden, a secret pond, complete with fantastical flowers and swimming insects. And I hadn't noticed them until on my hands and knees pulling out weeds, my nose inches from their leaves.

Poking up from within the rain-filled hearts of each plant were bright flowers, of an unexpected purple colour, clashing quite viole(n)tly with their surroundings.

After staring stupidly at my discovery for a few minutes I then also discovered that said miniature ponds were a perfectly nice breeding ground for mosquitoes and that just then, ouch!, one was feeding greedily on my elbow, brazen despite the fact that it was the middle of the day when all mosquitoes are supposed to be asleep. Now I felt like a true pioneer - just as you discover something amazing and beautiful you simultaneously discover it has a wretched downside...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Notes and Observations

Things I like about Sydney No. 40: Peeling Trees

All the gum trees on Berry Island are shedding their skins for the summer exposing shiny new reddish trunks. They are putting their winter furs away (I've been re-reading Nancy Mitford, it's all about furs). The floor of the walking trail is strewn with strips of multi-coloured bark which look like large pieces of puzzle waiting to be put back together again. When the sun comes out and strikes the tree trunks they look remarkably beautiful, a burnished reddish-gold.

Things I like about Sydney No. 41: The return of the Southern Leaf-Tailed Gecko.

The screams emanating from our bathroom are frequent enough these days to elicit a mild inquiry rather than an urgent response from those hearing them. Even when they occur in the middle of the night. The latest cry for help resulted from Daniel standing on another Southern Leaf-Tailed Gecko. As it was dark at the time he had no idea what he'd trodden on, only that it was alive and that it moved and that it felt disgusting. Fumbling for the light he then saw that the Gecko was back. With a new tail.

To tell the truth, this was a new Gecko. Much livelier than the last. It motored around the bathroom and evaded all our rescue attempts. Daniel left the window open (letting all those pesky mosquitoes in) and this time, in the dark of night, the Gecko vanished. We have no idea how they get in in the first place...

Things I like about Sydney No. 42: The magpies.

Australian magpies make the most extraordinary noises - they have a bubbling, chortling fountain of a song. When several of them get going at once it is quite joyful. Here is a link so you can hear it for yourselves:


When I came to Australia back in 1970-something the first Australian creature I saw, on opening the curtains on that first morning in suburban Melbourne, was a magpie, sauntering across the lawn. I remember being amazed at seeing this bird - the same but so different to the British equivalent. It was so large. It had a very pointy beak. It was a weird variation on a known theme.

Two magpies have begun to join in the feeding frenzy at our house in Glenview Street. Despite their size they are wary of the lorikeets and steer well clear of the cockatoos. So the current pecking order is:
1. Cockatoos
2. Lorikeets
3. Magpies
4. King Parrots
5. Crested Pigeon

Some mornings it is complete chaos on our balcony. And one of our avian friends has systematically destroyed my frangipani, plucking off new leaves as they arrive and eventually pecking off entire branches just for fun...

Things I like about Sydney No. 42: The second folly at Tambourine Bay.

Sometimes you don't see things because you are looking too hard.

At the far end of our walk around Tambourine Bay (described back in  March) Sniff and I arrive at a small beach, the end of the road for this particular walk. There is a jetty here belonging to St. Ignatius College (St. Ignatius had repetitive visions of serpents which had many things that shone like eyes, but were not eyes, whilst living as a hermit in a cave in Catalonia so he sounds like a very sound role model for young schoolboys) and we usually walk out to the end of it and whilst Sniff sniffs around reading the doggy news of the day I stand and stare at the far shore, at the lines of houses, at the yachts and boats, at the pelicans, into the water, at the crabs scuttling to safety under rocks. I then turn around, look back to our favourite folly and start the walk home.

Except the other day, I turned around and looked upwards, away from the water, the boats, the pelicans, the houses, and discovered....ANOTHER folly. Perched high up on a hill, half hidden by trees. A companion to folly number one.

Sniff and I began to scramble up a very overgrown and disused path to get a closer look. The path soon disappeared and we had to climb over bushes and up rocks (Sniff being rather better at this than me), expecting to find the folly in complete disarray. But when we reached our destination, it seemed freshly painted, cared-for and serene. A secret hideout affording a great view of the city in the far distance. I have no idea who uses it - now I know it is there I look out for evidence of inhabitants but never see anyone in it. It's all very mysterious and charming.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Circular Quay

Things I like about Sydney No. 39: Circular Quay.

It has been quite some while since I have found anything I've liked about Sydney as the (few) followers of my blog may have noticed. November flitted past without a single thing tickling my fancy. It rained perpetually and Sydney was dismal in all respects. We managed to get away for a week to stay in Berrara, three and a bit hours down the coast, in Karilyn and Tanja's lovely home from home but even there it rained...and rained...and rained. I did spot this in their garden though, on one of our three sunny days...

...an Eastern Spinebill which served to remind me of the amazing hummingbirds I saw in Arizona when touring there with the National Theatre and Hamlet. Berrara also gives me an excuse to put a photograph of a kangaroo on this blog - otherwise there'll never be one. They don't exactly flourish in Sydney after all. In Berrara this mother and her Joey were grazing the lawn outside the house along with a whole pack of their relatives just as dusk descended.

Apparently a group of kangaroos is either called a troop or a mob. These were definitely a mob - rather than backing away as I approached with my camera they stood tall and glared. I was the one intimidated  into retreating slowly and rather sheepishly.

Therefore I am happy to say that as I type Daniel is in the kitchen busy preparing tonight's dinner - Kangaroo Fillet in a Green Peppercorn Sauce with homemade chips, asparagus and green beans.

We are fond of the odd bit of kangaroo for dinner. As you can see from the packaging above (Gourmet Game indeed) it is 98 per cent fat free. Indeed, you search in vain for an ounce of fat on your fillet - must be all that bouncing around. High in protein, low in saturated fat, high in iron, gluten free and only 10 dollars for three enormous fillets. What's not to love? And as Greenpeace has urged Aussies to substitute roo for beef in their diet to help reduce land clearing and the release of methane gas from farting cattle I feel that I can only be doing good by eating a bit of Skippy every now and then. Judging by the super cheap price of beef and the shelves and shelves and shelves of it in supermarkets Greenpeace and I are fighting a losing battle.

Australians are generally finding kangaroo hard to stomach - it would be like the British eating bulldog or perhaps lion and unicorn. Over here we can eat both the national symbols - emu is readily available as well.

Woolworths, our nearest crap supermarket doesn't stock kangaroo but Coles, our second nearest crap supermarket, does...(An aside: ALL Australian supermarkets are crap - how I long for a Sainsburys or a Waitrose. Somewhere where saying "Do you have any Bulgur Wheat?" isn't interpreted as swearing unnecessarily).

I digress. What do I like about Sydney this week? Still not a lot, which leaves me with the bloody obvious - Circular Quay.

Circular Quay. Where the Opera House is. Where the bridge is. Where the ferry terminals are. Where the Museum of Modern Art perches next to the Rocks, Sydney's oldest enclave. Where every tourist in the world comes if they come to Sydney. What they talk about when they say that Sydney is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. What they mean when they talk about world class Sydney. From where Oprah Winfrey is broadcasting to the world next week (and all Australians, including Julia Gillard, the Prime Minister, seem to have their tongues firmly lodged up Oprah's arse as a result: "Ooooh, the boost to tourism!").

Last night, Daniel and I met at the Opera Bar (spookily located next to the Opera House) for some fish and chips and a bottle of sparkling wine (unlike Australians I refuse to call sparkling wine champagne or vice versa). Here we are a couple of hours later.

It was infinitely preferable staring up into the pink-tinged sky to watch the flying foxes make their nightly exodus from the Botanic Gardens in search of food to watching the execrable fashions being paraded around the Opera Bar by Sydneysiders and their tourist friends. On the other hand, exclaiming and lamenting about people's dress sense was great fun. As was watching the inevitable slow decay of office workers' sobriety as the evening wore on and they, straight from the office, still hadn't managed a meal but had managed schooners full of beer or multiple bottles of chardonnay. The weeping, the swaying, the wailing, the high heels breaking, the make-up running, the suits crumpling. One man was so distraught he ran from the bar clutching his left ear and screaming.

In the midst of all these suits letting their hair down in the open air in one of the world's most beautiful harbours at the end of the week (it was Friday night, who can blame them) was a poor girl standing in front of a microphone apparently singing along to the music a DJ was playing. I'm not sure if she was extemporising over tracks that already had vocals or whether she was the vocals. Either way, you couldn't hear her for love nor money over the cacophony of 500 people liberating themselves for the weekend from the shackles of capitalism. Daniel and I munched away at our flathead fillets and chips whilst watching her mouth open wide and then shut, wide and then shut and her right hand perform funny actions at the side of her head which made her look like a rabbit grooming its ears.

Here's a gratuitous picture of the bridge and of the City because it was a particularly stunning sky last night and even my iphone with no flash camera managed to get something out of "one of the most beautiful sights in the world" (Oprah, copyright 2010).

And I'll leave you with two contrasting pictures of kangaroo. Goodnight.