A couple of weeks ago I ran into a long-time neighbor as each of us were on our way to pick up odds and ends for dinner. Our boys grew up together and now we are grandmothers, still singing the glories of our families as we meet, intermittently, on the street. Biffy (Elizabeth Malko) is Australian – well, she once was – and had just come back from a visit home. She was absolutely bouyant with tales of her trip. It all sounded so inviting that I asked her to email her memories to me. She did and here they are – doesn’t she just make you want to call Qantas and go down under?
FROM BIFFY: I’m back in Oz–Australia–down at Newport Beach, NSW, off-season deserted, at the southern end of the beach, just me and a cormorant drying stretched wings by the rock pool. In the early 50′s I found a shark’s egg nearby. It looked like a twist of seaweed in the shallow water. I still have that egg at home in New York. Walking back towards the surf club, two teenagers with surfboards check out the surf, while sulphur-crested cockatoos bob up and down in the beach grass.
Later, in the butcher shop, The Dependable Butchery on Barrenjoey Road, where we have come to buy a leg of lamb and sliced ham, my brother Donald and his wife Sue introduce me to the butchers; with much animated conversation and laughter they confirm what Donald told me at breakfast that morning as he broke off a piece of buttered toast and wiped up the remains of an egg with ham: “sliced ham from the leg of the female pig is the best”.
The butchers continue to work and chat, Sue takes a closer look at other cuts of meat while I’m fixated on the variety of lamb: Butterflied Legs, Marinated Butterflied, Rolled Shoulder, Chump Chops, Loin Chops, Cutlets, Shanks, Lamb Kidney, Lamb Frys, marinated cubed lamb labeled Sweet Lamb Curry, Lamb and Rosemary Sausage. I don’t see lamb brains. Fronds of brightly colored plastic ferns are tucked between trays of the various meats.
Yes, I’m definitely back.
I wasn’t thinking lamb as the plane approached Sydney. It was seafood, oysters and prawns that I was looking forward to eating again. So when Donald announces “Now is the time to have lunch on the boat before the weather changes,” I know it’s prawn time.
With a bag of cooked unshelled prawns, a couple of lemons, bread rolls, container of coleslaw, we drive across to the other side of the Peninsula, the Pittwater side, where the boat is moored.
On board, Sue picks up the plastic alligator that successfully keeps birds off the deck, and adjusts ropes. Don starts the engine and we head north towards Lion Island, the foreshore of Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park on our left. Dramatic clouds fill the sky. Unable to describe what I’m seeing, all I can say is, “Look at the light, look at the light!”
We stop near Mackerel Beach, set up lunch on deck, peel prawns. They are delicious. Prawn heads with long thread-like feelers soon fill the discard- bowl. When it starts to rain, we move into the cabin and reluctantly head back to the dock as the wind picks up.
My oyster-fest starts on the Pittwater side of Palm Beach. A been-there-for-ages low key waterfront favorite is under new management and is now called The Boathouse. We order Pacific oysters and linger for the view. For me, it is all perfect.
Sydney Rock oysters are ordered when I lunch with nieces at the popular Barrenjoey House restaurant on Barrenjoey Road, which is also on the Pittwater side of Palm Beach. The day is cool and sunny, and we opt to sit outside for the view of the water beyond the Falkland pines on the other side of the road.
Later, we drive over to Palm Beach–”Palmy”–a great stretch of beach which curves from the southern headland to the northern headland with its lighthouse and entrance to Broken Bay. Wet-suited board riders and body surfers have it all to themselves.
A Monday night dinner at another Peninsula restaurant, the Starfish, in Avalon, the cuisine referred to as “modern Australian,” “modern Asian.” It is to be a quiet evening with my nephew Peter, his wife, and her daughter. That all changes to a table for twelve after various members of a family I know and Peter grew up with unexpectedly appear. No longer locals, the group includes the award winning restaurateurs, Chef Robert Molines and his wife Sally, who opened their first restaurant in the Hunter Valley wine country in the early 70′s. My “starters” that evening? Seared scallops.
Staying with my sister, Mag, in Lane Cove, a northern suburb of Sydney. What we like to do at the end of the day is buy Sydney Rock and Pacific oysters from the local fish shop to eat at home. Served with a squirt of lemon, a glass of wine, and buttered bread on the side–Australians love their buttered bread. At A$1.25 an oyster, which is half the price of restaurant oysters, we often indulge.
Mag and I go to Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, expecting to see the annual Archibald Prize exhibit. We find that it closed the day before. We walk through galleries with familiar artworks and then go upstairs for lunch in The Restaurant. Oysters, prawn confit, barramundi, wild rocket, all of it delicious, all of it almost upstaged by what we see through the restaurant’s floor to ceiling windows: a fierce storm moving over Woolloomooloo Bay that ends with a spectacular rainbow.
Leaving the Gallery we look across to the Domain, at the expanse of lawn edged with enormous Morton Bay Fig trees. These trees are a bonus for me.
West of Sydney, crossing the Blue Mountains, we are on the way to Donald and Sue’s farm in the Capertee Valley. Sue asks if I’d like to stop for pies at the Pie in The Sky Roadhouse. Of course I do. I’d not eaten an Oz pie in a long time.
The Pie in The Sky Roadhouse has corrugated iron roof and walls, all painted cream, weathered, with an extra long bench out front. Inside, freshly baked pies fill the display case. A sign on the wall lets us know the special: Chips & Gravy A$4.50. We buy meat pies. I ask for one to be heated, add a blob of tomato sauce, and head for the car. It’s hot, it drips, it’s a true Oz pie, and I forgot to ask for extra napkins.
The next stop is Lithgow, and then on to Capertee.
Approaching the pub, the Royal Hotel Capertee, the few buildings on this stretch of the road seem empty, vacant, except for the house opposite the pub, the one with a corrugated iron roof and bullnose overhang. The verandah has a couple of metal chairs, a wheel barrow, and stacked wood. Passing here, I know it’s just a few more miles to the turnoff for the farm.
Sue’s on gate duty, getting out to open and close them as we drive cross other people’s properties, the rutted dirt road eroded even more from recent rain. The last time I was at the farm was January 2002, summer in the southern hemisphere. Everything was dry and parched, the golden elm in front of the house drought-stressed, dropping leaves. Now healthy leaves are dropping because it’s autumn.
As we approach the house, I’m excited to see the recently restored blacksmith’s cottage. It’s time for tea. In the kitchen of the house, Sue’s heirloom tea cosy, the one her grandmother knitted that looks like a cottage, covers the teapot, as it did in 2002. But the scantily clad pinups from the Jax Tyre Service 1960 calendar that hung on the wall are gone. In the bathroom, there’s the familiar reminder: PLEASE KEEP SHOWERS SHORT AS WE ARE ON TANK WATER.
Early the next morning on the way to the outside loo, I was delighted to see Lola the llama peering over the fence. No longer guarding sheep–they were sold during the drought–Lola now hangs out with the heifers.
Morning attire is work gear for everyone except me. I’m walking up to the dump, rust-central, the final resting place for discarded metals: farm equipment, water tanks, vehicles, car parts, a jumble of once utilitarian stuff. Cautioned, “look out for snakes and spiders”, I never see anything more menacing than the body of a Singer sewing machine. A few selected pieces never made it up to the dump, and sit, farm sculptures, in the grass below. For me, this is all like one great big installation, a Storm King Art Center in Capertee.
Meanwhile, the others are spreading wood chips over soggy ground and shoveling them into road-ruts. Preparation is under way for the arrival of Peter and his sisters, Mandy and Lou, and Donald’s birthday dinner. The electricity is out. As most of the cooking is done outside in a kettle-style or propane-fueled Weber, this isn’t a big deal, just an annoyance. Leg of lamb, corn, veg, gravy.
The next day we all walk through the paddock at the back of the house, past the dam where Donald likes to hit golf balls. Close to the burial site of early settlers we find places to sit and look across the Capertee Valley–the widest enclosed valley in the world–in the distance, sandstone escarpments, buttes, billowing clouds.
My Oz mantra kicks in again: “Look at the light, look at the light.”