Friday, March 25, 2011

Miniature fruit and veg

Things I like about Sydney No. 53: Miniature Fruit and Veg

It's been a long time since this blog has been to the supermarket. Way back in November 2009 I got inordinately excited about insect sprays and cheap asparagus but since then there has been silence on the grocery shopping front. And for good reason. I don't like the supermarkets here, they're not a patch on Sainsbury's or Waitrose.

But, this week Woolworths has gone, quite literally, bananas. Despite floods, droughts, earthquakes, plagues of locusts and all the other natural disasters that have been besetting this continent its shelves are groaning with the most extraordinary displays of strange fruit and vegetables. Many miniaturised. And London simply cannot compare with Australia for fruit and veg.

Take pears, for instance. Currently there seem to be about six different varieties in stock from dark-brown Beurre Bosc to greenish-yellow Josephines to yellow William Bartletts. And the weirdest of all - the Paradise Pear (also known as Faccia Bella). These are tiny, miniature pears, almost round, with a green skin blushed with red. And, as Woolworths say, ideal for lunchboxes...I have never seen the like.

These little Paradise Pears are, indeed, paradisiacal and might save me from eating too many jellybeans. Much healthier.

Plums are in season too. And again not just a single type of plum but many different varieties. We have blood plums (rich red in colour, obviously),  the freaky plumcot (a cross between a plum and an apricot, unnerving I know), black plums, October Sun plums (green), Tegan Blue plums and Sugar Plums - the miniature variation, below on the right.

Another good jellybean substitute, the sugar plum is intensely sweet and (I'm eating one right now) quite marvellous.

Australia apparently grows over 200 different varieties of plum so frankly Woolworths needs to pull their socks up a bit...

Past the miniature bananas (Lady Finger variety) and we cross the aisle towards the veg. And lo and behold, it's Alice Through The Looking-Glass over here too. First up, the aubergine. This is painful for me because aubergine is, frankly, the flesh of the devil and to have more than one variety is simply abhorrent. But there they are, nestling next to their fatter cousins, miniature little aubergines, specifically there to make me shudder.

More congenial are the miniature chillies (one of seven fresh varieties today) and the miniature red peppers.

I cannot venture near the olive counter (olives being the testicles of the devil) but no doubt there are miniature ones of them too. And stoneless ones, and purple ones, and freaky yellow ones. There are also enough varieties of tomato to make Daniel sit down in the aisle and weep (for he's of the opinion that an uncooked tomato is a thing of violence. Once cooked, on the other hand, they become perfectly harmless.)

So, as you can see, despite the dire warnings of empty shelves and escalating prices which we were  indundated with early in the year whilst the Queensland floods were in full spate, Australian farmers have somehow battled on to produce an amazing array of produce early this autumn.

Here's to them (and to all things small)!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Posh Places and their Lighthouses Part I: Vaucluse

Things I like about Sydney No. 52: Posh Places and their Lighthouses Part I: Vaucluse

The first thing you need to know about Vaucluse is how to pronouce it. Say it incorrectly, like I did, and it is immediately obvious that you don't belong here, in one of the poshest parts of town.

So here's your pronunciation lesson. 'Vau' must rhyme with whore (not with 'go') and cluse with 'clues' (not 'close'). Simple really. Except I still can't seem to get it right. Which makes me feel as one with all those tourists in London who have great difficulty with correctly pronouncing Leicester Square...

Vaucluse is the northernmost suburb of the southern half of Sydney, sticking out into the Tasman Sea and looking down upon the city. Daniel wanted to go there on his birthday last week because he remembered regularly going to a wonderful park there in the golden, hallowed days of his youth - Neilsen Park in Shark Bay. Turning 45 he wanted to return in order to possibly recapture the feeling of being young and gorgeous...

So I packed the esky (ice-box to you) with a scrumptious picnic - quail's eggs, smoked sardines, wild game pate, red peppers stuffed with fetta, bread, cakes, champagne and lemonade - stuffed a bag with paper plates, cups and cutlery and off we set, Sniff in tow, to turn back time...

It's quite an arduous journey to Vaucluse as there seems to be just the one main road to get there from the city which was, despite the fact that it was a weekday and towards lunch-time, jam-packed with cars and lorries. This road twists and turns, snaking through unprepossessing suburbs, carrying far too much traffic for its size. Sniff and I both began to be restless. Daniel seemed already to be in a reverie of remembrance.

After some cursing (on my behalf) we eventually managed to leave this road and began to wind our way through the streets of Vaucluse. This is where the elite live, grand house after grand house after grand house. One does wonder how Sydney manages to support so many expensive houses - after all Vaucluse is by no means the only posh bit - there are endless expensive suburbs crowded with endless  water-front properties. What do all these Sydneysiders do to afford buying them and living there? Daniel and I are both like so working in the wrong industry.

Eventually, in glorious sunshine, we arrive at the entrance to Neilsen Park, ready to relive Daniel's glorious glory days. We tumble out of the car to read the park's sign and its maps and to work out where to have our picnic. After some preliminary information, in big bold letters, the sign read NO DOMESTIC PETS.

Daniel's dreams crushed. Our picnic ruined. Sniff oblivious and eager to bound about...

I tell you, NEVER GET A DOG.

We ended up eating our picnic in the unremarkable Vaucluse Bay (one bay along from Neilsen Park and its attendant Shark Bay) which was completely empty of people. Here is Daniel, scoffing away in the bay.

I did offer to take Sniff off for a walk so that Daniel could explore his old haunts, to give him a chance to look round Neilsen Park, but he gallantly refused the offer and, instead, after eating our fill, we wandered around the grounds of Vaucluse House. This, which is the grandest pile hereabouts, was built gradually over the first half of the nineteenth century in a rather ramshackle manner by its rather ramshackle owner, William Wentworth. (Wentworth's wife Sarah was shunned by colonial society - there was talk of illegitimacy and a convict background...which left the unlucky couple with no choice but to socialise with the lower orders. Quelle horreur!). Taken individually each part of the house is charming. Taken together it is a complete mess.

A gardener was busy pulling out the dead branches of tree-ferns and bracken, some ducks were pecking away in the confines of their cages, a few elderly couples were taking tea in the tea-rooms but Vaucluse House, mid-week, was otherwise deserted. We circumnavigated the grounds, avoiding the pleasure-gardens (NO DOGS ALLOWED) and saw no-one. Which helped me to imagine that the house was actually mine and that I'd given the servants the day off to ponder my next mis-matched extension....

Follow us from Vaucluse House, back into the car again, onwards and upwards to our next tourist spot, the Gap (and we're not talking t-shirts and chinos here - we're talking Sydney's most notorious suicide spot - an Australian Beachy Head). It's not that Daniel used to come here in his youth and contemplate flinging himself off into oblivion (at least he didn't admit to that) but if we weren't able to go to Neilsen Park then we were damned well going to go everywhere else we could go!

When I arrived in Sydney in November 2008 all the papers were full of one particular murder trial. It seemed to be especially newsworthy because it involved a young and beautiful Australian model. Her body had been found on the rocks at the bottom of the Gap back in 1995 and, at first, because her mother had committed suicide, it was expected that she had done the same. However, thirteen years later, her boyfriend was fairly sensationally convicted of her murder. The fact that various Sydney 'celebrities' were peripherally involved in the case helped coverage to run and run and run. The young woman's name was Caroline Byrne.

The Gap is still notorious as the place where Sydneysiders, reluctant one and all, come to end their own lives - around 50 people throw themselves off the cliff each year.

Here's Daniel and Sniff walking along the broiling hot coastal path with the Gap's clifftop visible in the distance:

Sniff contemplating (and rejecting) the idea of suicide:

The Pacific Ocean stretched out before us as far as the eye could see, blue as blue could be. The sun was beating down mercilessly upon our uncovered heads and upon clusters of Japanese tourists, all looking out at the Gap and at the Heads (the cliffs that mark the entrance, like two pincers, north and south, to Sydney's harbour).

What with the heat (and Daniel's advancing years) we were fairly exhausted from our picnic and only managed one more brief stop in our exploration of Sydney's poshest suburb, Vaucluse (remember it's Whore-clues but with a 'V'). Driving back towards town from the Gap - past a fairly spectacular view of the City -

- we passed a stunning lighthouse, brilliant white against a clear blue sky. A man in official Council garb was busy watering the parched grass at its base and he kindly agreed to fill Sniff's portable drinking bowl from his hose...which was fairly essential as the poor dog was heat-stricken from trekking around the coastal path. Whilst Sniff drank and the Council worker was distracted I slipped past the No Entry signs and snapped some shots of the lighthouse.

Built on the site of Australia's very first lighthouse, erected in 1818, the current building, called the Macquarie Lighthouse, was built in 1883. It is now fully automated - the last keeper was sent into retirement in 1989. What a place to live in...spectacular views, no neighbours (unlike in all those cramped Vaucluse mansions), beautiful architecture, expressive detailing, your own private tower. And now that all the dirty work (ie. preventing accidents at sea) has been taken over by machinery, the life of Riley. Surely, surely they need a caretaker...I'm willing and eager.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tawny Frogmouths

Things I like about Sydney No. 51: Tawny Frogmouths

Sniff and I went for a walk around Tambourine Bay this morning. The air was exceptionally still and quiet, with not a breeze to be felt or heard. The only sounds accompanying my footsteps were the clattering of Sniff's nails on rocks as he scampered ahead, the quiet knockings together of loosely moored boats, and the occasional caw from a crow. Briefly, some twittering wrens rose up from a bush, only to disappear as quickly, leaving an almost pristine silence to reign once more.

Autumn was definitely in the air. According to the weather information on my phone it was only 24 degrees - already down five degrees from last week and surely the beginning of the end of summer. Leaves are beginning to fall in earnest and the possibility of having to wear a jumper is not so far away...

Perhaps it is always quieter in the autumn but I did begin to feel rather isolated this morning. Especially as, when we neared the folly, we passed a long series of abandoned gardening tools and sacks stuffed with cuttings - ghostly evidence of someone's recent hard work. But where were they now?

Reaching the jetty beyond St. Ignatius College, which marks the turning point on our walk (and which you can see through the arch of the folly in the photograph above), I walked to its furthermost tip in the hope of seeing some pelicans breezily sailing the waters. Only two sad-looking gulls rose lazily in the air, disturbed by my presence. I stared down into the water and saw dozens of white-translucent jellyfish oozing their way past, slowly and silently pulsing and propelling themselves towards the city, outlined in the distance. No-one sailed past, no-one passed us with their dog, no school-children rowed their boats or sculled their punts to the barking orders of their teachers. Eleven thirty in the morning and Sydney had gone to sleep. Except for that stealthy horde of stingers heading inland...

All of which has absolutely nothing to do with Tawny Frogmouths...

I love the name Tawny Frogmouth. Just saying it gives one's lips a work-out, creating shapes akin to the odd nature of the creature itself.

Daniel and I moved to Newtown because of two Tawny Frogmouths. In our first few weeks in Sydney we rushed around town looking at various suburbs, trying to decide which we would like to or could bear to or could afford to live in. Daniel took me to Newtown because that was where he had lived when he was last here, back in the 80s. He didn't think I would like it and I should have listened to him. Instead, however, after having looked at some possible houses to rent, we went to Camperdown Cemetery (as described in Blog No. 49) to wander about and look at the gravestones. Whilst there we also looked up at the magnificent trees and in one of them, in perfect view, were perched two Tawny Frogmouths.

At this point I decided we had to live in Newtown. Tawny Frogmouths! In broad daylight! (They are nocturnal creatures). How could we live anywhere else?

So the lease was signed and purgatory begun.

For at No. 46 Roberts Street in Newtown we lived next to a Great Dane whose owner was out every day from 9.00 in the morning until 6.00 at night. During which time the poor dog would endlessly bark. Sometimes for three hours on end. Great Danes have very big lungs. I went completely bananas. Whatismore, it would also shit all over its back-yard, a mere four paces from our kitchen. And dog shit in the Australian summer has a perfume like no other. One of the attractive things about our house was that you could roll back the entire kitchen wall onto the garden. This was no longer attractive. The  photograph below must have been taken at the weekend when our neighbour managed to shift her fat arse and hose down her backyard. The following photograph was obviously taken on a weekday...the doors are mostly closed.

In addition to the trauma with the Great Dane (which eventually involved the Council and a long series of letters) our perfectly lovely landlords, who intially became our friends, dining with us, coming to events with us, turned into pyscho landlords from hell because we complained when our lights stopped working in the bathroom. Pyscho Landlord No. 1 turned up on our doorstop, eyes bulging, screaming, and accusing me of lying to our estate agent. After which, I never quite felt safe in Newtown again...

And we never saw another Tawny Frogmouth either. Not even a glimpse. Not even the possibility of a glimpse. I reckon those two original specimens were stuffed and perched in the cemetery at Daniel's command on that fateful December day in 2008 just so as I would make up my mind about living somewhere in this city...

Here in Greenwich we haven't seen a Tawny Frogmouth either (Podargus strigoides) although we know they are out there every night. If you want to see what one looks like when alive you'll have to google it. Otherwise you could make do with the following:

Sniff and I discovered a new walk - rather substandard - which starts at a sports oval on the other side of Greenwich Road. Once you have traversed the sportsground a path snakes upwards alongside another creek where the vegetation is rather denuded and the houses crowding in somewhat. The trail leads on up, past some falls, to River Road which is one of the busiest roads hereabouts. Consequently, the sound of traffic is never far away. How degraded the area is can be seen by contrasting the sign for the Lillypilly Falls displaying a photograph taken in 1900 and one I took of the Lillypilly Falls as they were today...

After bearing with this bitter disappointment, Sniff and I continued up the path and just as it debouched onto River Road we were rewarded with the discovery of a fresh corpse.....that of a Tawny Frogmouth.

Presumably the poor thing had been knocked flying by a passing, speeding truck.

Frogmouths are rather large - imagine a big but slender owl - and have quite extraordinary-looking faces. Even in death this bird had a certain charming grumpiness about it. Being a keen collector of feathers I went about plucking its wings and tail, gingerly gripping the corpse and hoping that a) it wouldn't give way in a burst of gases b) it didn't contain a writhing mass of maggots and c) I wouldn't catch some terrible bird disease in doing so. (I seem alright so far).

A week later and the Frogmouth was still there, but this time something had been along and ripped its wings off (or at least what was left of them after my corpse-raiding actions).

I now regret not having scooped up the entire bird. I should have brought it home, got out the Yellow Pages (or whatever the Australian equivalent is - the White Pages I think) and called up a local taxidermist. A stuffed Tawny Frogmouth would be marvellous. Please all keep your eyes peeled...Preferably vintage...

In the meantime, I have this ever-increasing pile of feathers with which I am going idea. My first collection winged its way to Bella in Shoreham. This one might have to stay with me as a reminder of that poor Great Dane in Newtown and of its whopping great big lungs.

P.S. (One day later)

My friend Andrew read this blog and, as a fellow Frogmouth fan, sent me the following photograph of a Tawny Frogmouth he spotted in broad daylight in Sydney's Botanical Gardens. I debated whether I should put it on the blog or not because frankly it makes all of my photographs look (as they are) distinctly amateur...sigh...but it is so marvellous. So here we go:

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Things I like about Sydney No. 50: Obedience

What seems like a long, long time ago, in an airport in Amsterdam, my friend Kevin persuaded me to start writing this blog. He was sick of my constant groaning and moaning about living in Australia and told me to go away and think of all the things I liked about Sydney. And to then write them down.

Write, being the operative word. For when, some months later, I posted a blog with no text but plenty of pictures Kevin phoned me up and complained. "It doesn't count," he said.

Nevertheless, for this, my Jubilee blog, with apologies to Kevin in advance, here's an entry with no (or very little) text. A blog about signs. Signs which are hard to imagine being posted up anywhere in the streets of London...Signs which must be obeyed.

(And anyway Kevin...firstly, what's that cliche about a picture being worth a thousand words? And secondly, these are pictures OF words! Ha! Surely THAT counts.)