Indefinite leave of absence

Just to let my small band of followers know that I am taking a break from blogging.

Reluctantly!

I have a range of challenges in my life at the moment. In the face of these, I can’t summon the energy to write, much as I would like to complete the story of our 2016 travels in Europe.

I hope to return to the blogosphere but I cannot predict when that will be.

Until then …

Cheers
Rick Grounds

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Into the closet: folio 4

A few weeks ago, we updated our ‘loo view’, replacing images from our visit to Spain in 2011 with a selection of photos from the three days we spent in Burgundy in May 2014.

Although we enjoyed several bottles of the region’s famous wines, the main themes of our explorations and experiences were fine dining, scenery and the old heart of the town of Beaune. These themes are illustrated by the images that now adorn the walls of the little room in our home:

Group 1

Here are two of the dishes that we both enjoyed during our time in Burgundy and took as inspiration for cooking in our kitchen back in Melbourne: chicken with a mustard cream sauce and a refined presentation of boeuf bourguignon.

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chez-jeannette-3

Group 2

This group comprises a colourful public park in the centre of Beaune; vineyards at Montrachet, some of the most expensive agricultural land in the world; and bunches of lily of the valley, sold on every street corner on the morning of May Day, a very French tradition.

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Group 3

The last pair of photos is of the famous Hotel Dieu, constructed in the middle of the 15th Century by the Chancellor of Burgundy and his wife, as a hospice and hospital for the poor. From its inception to the present day, this facility and its successors have been the direct financial beneficiaries of the sale of wine from an an allocation of fine Burgundian vineyards arranged by the founders.

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Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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It’s pickling time again!

Happy New Year everyone!

One of the things we like most about the warmer months is the abundance of fruit available for converting to condiments, ie pickles, chutneys and relishes. In our home, that will always include green tomato pickle and pear & ginger chutney; we tend to make these later in the season, when there is an ample supply of not-ripe-enough tomatoes and the first pears of the new year.

So far this summer, we have made three condiments that we didn’t get around to making in the 2015/16 season: pickled cherries, red tomato relish and spicy peach chutney.

Pickled cherries

The recipe for the pickled cherries leaves their primary fruit flavour largely intact, whilst adding a savoury edge. We have mainly used them with duck, smoked eel and antipasti, and in a festive rice salad to go with ham or poultry.

Ingredients

500g firm, ripe cherries, stems attached (to prevent bleeding)
200g sugar (white or raw)
200ml white wine vinegar
650ml water
1 fresh bay leaf (or 2 dried leaves)
2 long strips orange zest
2 long strips lemon zest
1 stick cinnamon
4 black peppercorns
4 cloves
1 tsp salt

Method

  1. Pack the cherries into sterilised jars.
  2. Bring the remaining ingredients to a boil in a saucepan, stirring until the sugar has dissolved, then simmer for 5 minutes.
  3. Pour the spiced vinegar mixture over the cherries, cover with lids immediately and tip jars upside down to seal.
  4. Leave for a month before eating. When you open a jar for the first time, remove all the solid elements of the pickling medium, eg zest, cinnamon, bay leaf.
  5. If stored in a dark, cool place, the cherries will keep for up to 2 years

The third of the photos shows how the jar of cherries looks after 24 hours. The last photo was taken three weeks later.

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pickled-cherries-2         pickled-cherries-3

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Tomato relish

Maggie grew up living with her parents in the home of her grandmother, who was an expert in culinary self-sufficiency. Tomato relish was a regular summer product, using home-grown tomatoes. This recipe produces a spicy condiment that matches Maggie’s palate-memory.

Ingredients

1kg ripe tomatoes, peeled and sliced
375g brown onions, peeled and sliced
40-50g salt
330g sugar
3 tsp mild (Madras) curry powder
3 tsp mustard powder
pinch of chilli flakes
400ml white vinegar

Method

  1. Place tomatoes and onions in a large bowl, sprinkle with salt, cover with cling wrap and leave overnight.
  2. Next morning, strain off the liquid. Place the tomato mixture in a large pan, add vinegar and sugar and bring to the boil. Boil rapidly for 5 minutes.
  3. Add spices to the pan and stir. Boil gently for 1 hour, stirring regularly to prevent the relish from catching.
  4. Pour into sterilised jars and seal. Stored in a good fridge, the relish will keep for
    at least 18 months.

tomato-relish

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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Capital cooking: eating out, in and around Canberra

Maggie and I enjoy visiting Canberra but, to use that well-worn phrase, we wouldn’t want to live there. Like some other cities built from scratch in the 20th century to house national governments and their agencies, it has a reputation for being somewhat soulless and unattractively atypical, economically, socially and, to some extent, physically. Some years ago, it was even described as ‘a waste of a good sheep paddock’, being built, as it was, on land that was once home to flocks of sheep.

For much of each year, there is at least a sense that business is being done, with hotel rooms full on weeknights, and local bars and restaurants crowded with politicians, their staff, journalists, lobbyists, diplomats, public servants, consultants, sundry parasites and more than a little intrigue. Indeed, the city is home to numerous fine dining establishments, most of which have been named at least once in a news story as being where some famous and/or clandestine rendezvous took place.

We had timed our visit so as to arrive the day after the national parliament had risen for the summer recess. Although this left some of the city’s streets looking deserted, it also meant that there was no shortage of tables at our chosen cafes and restaurants. Here is a brief account of where and what we ate.

Clementine Restaurant, Yass

We actually spent our first night in the town of Yass, about 40 minutes on the Melbourne side of Canberra. Yass has a population of about 6,000 but, somewhat surprisingly, it is the home of a very highly regarded restaurant, Clementine.

Maggie had read about Clementine in a newspaper article and, once we had explored its menu, we booked a table and then booked a room at one of the town’s accommodation establishments. (Judging by the number of the latter, we imagine that some business travellers choose to stay in Yass and then drive in to Canberra, where hotel rooms can be quite expensive during the working week.)

It had been a warm day ‘north of the border’, so we opted to sit at one of Clementine’s outdoor tables and admire the restaurant’s cottage garden in the mild evening air.

We each selected one appetiser and one entree. Maggie began with cured salmon, pickled beetroot, dill and radishes, a delicate and delicious plate for the ‘knock-the-door-down’ price of $10. For one dollar less, I had a more robust combination of sobrassada, white anchovy, pickled eschallot & crisp toasts; something out of the norm for me and perhaps a little salty, but partnered well by a glass of rose.

1-yass   2-yass

Maggie’s second plate was adorned with roasted duck breast – oh there’s a surprise! – charred peach, radicchio, pistachio and a not-too-sweet orange caramel; close to perfection for a mere $20. For one dollar more, I received a plate of bona fide perfection – pan-fried Tasmanian scallops, sauteed peas, mint, bacon and pea puree. If I have ever been served a better dish of my favourite seafood, it was too long ago to matter.

3-yass   4-yass

I had arrived at Clementine doubting the need for dessert, having enjoyed afternoon tea at The Roses, the pick of the local cafes. However, Maggie’s enthusiasm and our waiter’s encouragement landed us a shared bowl of soft chocolate mousse, marinated cherries, coconut panna cotta  and toasted shreds of coconut; a steal at $14.

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Between us, we enjoyed five glasses from an appealing wine list, slanted towards wines produced in the Canberra region. However, it was the chef/owner’s fine skills in the kitchen which made this one of, if not, the best meals we have enjoyed in an Australian rural town. You can learn more about Clementine here, including some delightful photos of the garden and the outdoor space where we dined.

Ottoman Restaurant, Canberra

Before we left Melbourne, we had also booked to dine at Ottoman, a long-lived and multi-award-winning restaurant serving food with a Turkish influence. As a bonus, it was only a five-minute walk from our hotel. Our table overlooked an attractive courtyard, populated by roses, jasmine and a workplace Christmas party.

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We decided to place our appetites in the hands of our experienced waiter, subject to a couple of ‘must haves’ and ‘no thanks’. He brought us four appetisers/entrees and two main courses to share.

We began with one of the evening’s specials, tuna carpaccio, olive oil, micro herbs and some citrus and pepper elements that I can’t quite recall. I do remember that it was close to sublime.

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The tuna was soon followed by crispy zucchini flowers filled with goat’s feta & halloumi cheese – tasty enough but I still don’t ‘get’ zucchini flowers; and Queensland king prawns, sautéed with shitake mushrooms & baby spinach, served with lemon yoghurt sauce, a pleasing mix of flavours and textures.

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Our last entree was yufka pastry rolls of shredded duck, onions, currants, pine-nuts & herbs served with a pomegranate & yoghurt sauce. These fell short of expectations, if only because there was too little inside the pastry, and the filling needed a larger component of duck and spice.

The next dish was thin slices of veal seasoned with mild Aleppo chilli, char-grilled, served with leek & potato skordalia, baby spinach and a mustard sauce. We cook veal in several ways at home but we had always assumed that char-grilling would produce a dry or chewy result. Not so at Ottoman! We enjoyed this dish so much that we are now one sleep away from trying it at home.

56-otto   57-otto

Some of you might be pleased that we put the iPhone away before our last plate – sauteed calf livers, spinach and a jus – arrived at the table. A pleasure for my offal-friendly wife but otherwise a bit more food than we needed; certainly, there was no room for dessert, shared or otherwise. Overall, we’d had a very satisfactory meal, and we would be happy to dine at Ottoman when we make our next pilgrimage to the national capital.

Hotel Kurrijong

On the previous evening, we had dined at our Canberra hotel, the heritage-listed Hotel Kurrajong. The menu was on the pricey side but, despite several typos, it read as an opportunity to have a very good meal in a very attractive setting.

Not so! I should have taken the typos – ‘asaparagus’ for one – as a sign that this hotel dining room had aspirations beyond its abilities. For that is what unfolded; including the service, which was friendly and well-intentioned but noticeably disorganised.

Here is Maggie’s entree of house-smoked duck breast, witlof orange salad and berry vinaigrette. She was happy enough with the flavours, although it lacked the wow factor of her duck entree in Yass. The main shortcoming was actually an excess … of duck fat, which formed an ugly pile by the time she was finished. She followed that with an item listed in the menu’s ‘nose-to-tail’ section; I won’t go there!

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I began with an entree of cured salmon, apple fennel salad and verjus dressing. It was a bit plain, if agreeably fresh, and it was coarsely prepared and presented. That was followed by a ‘New York cut sirloin’, which was overwhelmed by an awful mushroom sauce that failed to disguise the abundance of gristle in the steak. Serve that up in lower Manhattan and you’ll get more than your steak cut!

At least the view into the hotel’s courtyard was charming. We retired there to detox and returned to the scene for breakfast.

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It’s not that the meal was a complete disaster – and, yes, we can be harsh critics – but at the price, it should have been a triumph. We think they’d be better off to dumb the menu down to the level of expertise in the kitchen – in principle, there’s no shame in offering a nice piece of grilled fish, chips and salad option – and make their profits from the bar.

Canberra cafes

Before we entered the Australian War Memorial, we had a good quality coffee at Poppy’s Cafe, a recent and handsome addition to the museum precinct.

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And we made two visits to Silo, widely regarded as one of the very best bakery-cafes in the eastern half of Australia. It was recommended to us on our first stay in Canberra and, through five samplings, and counting, of its wares, it has never failed us.

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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Visit to Canberra: a symphony in five monuments (day 2)

On our second full day in Canberra, Maggie and I visited three more national monuments.

National Portrait Gallery

We first visited the National Portrait Gallery in 2013, soon after it it moved into a purpose-built facility. The gallery houses a wonderful collection of portraits of Australians, as well as some foreigners with a special connection to our country. Most of the portraits’ subjects are well known, but the lesser-known ones are brought to life by well-told back-stories, and the collection as a whole is enlivened by the variety of media and styles, ranging from formal, through quirky to outrageous, in a good way!

The focus of our visit this time was an exhibition called The popular pet show. You can learn more about it here. The exhibition comprised works by 16 artists, depicting a variety of famous and not-so-well-known Australians with their pets. Many of the works had been produced especially for the occasion and the overall mood was weighted to the quirky end of the spectrum. Here are just four of the many works that delighted us.

Self with friends, 2016 by Lucy Culliton

Self with friends, 2016 by Lucy Culliton

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Xini and Billy, 2006 by Jiawei Shen

Xini and Billy, 2006 by Jiawei Shen

Self Portrait (the year my husband left), 2008 by Jude Rae

Self Portrait (the year my husband left), 2008 by Jude Rae

National Library of Australia

We could happily have spent more time with the pets but we wanted to reach the National Library by 11am, to take a free tour of some of the library’s ‘treasures’. As you can see, the library too is housed in an imposing building.

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On either side of the marble-floored entry foyer is a cafe and a gift shop. The windows in the cafe are filled with stained-glass created by Australia’s foremost exponent of this art-form, Leonard French. (French is most famous in Australia for creating a stained-glass ceiling in the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria, a building for which the architect was my great uncle Roy Grounds.)

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Our short tour of some of the library’s ‘treasures’ was, for us, a mixed bag, but it served to introduce us to the fact that the library holds a vast collection of material of historical interest to Australians.

Table made from timber grown in every notable place visited by Captain James Cook

Table made from timbers native to every notable place visited by English naval explorer, Captain James Cook

The tour ended at a display of some works by Athol Shmith, Australia’s most renowned society and fashion photographer of the 20th century. Shmith was best known in his home city of Melbourne, but he also undertook a variety of important work at a national level. You can learn more about Athol Shmith here, including his extensive influence on the development of the craft of photography in our country.

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45-library      46-library

National Museum of Australia

After a light lunch at the National Library’s cafe, we headed to the National Museum of Australia to view A history of the world in 100 objects from the British Museum, the exhibition which was the initial purpose of our journey to Canberra.

Based on our 2015 visit to the British Museum in London, our expectations were high. Possibly, they were too high, which would partly explain my mixed feelings about what we saw this time around.

The collection of 100 exhibits, some including up to half a dozen objects, was ordered chronologically and into defined phases in the development of human civilisation. Fair enough. However, the lighting in the room had been dimmed, as if for a piece of theatre, which made for a strange atmosphere.

The objects were mainly items of art or craft, interesting enough taken in isolation and enlivened by their accompanying interpretive stories. The latter demonstrated the skills and expertise of museum personnel to understand and explain objects as indicative benchmarks of ways of life, social organisation, economic conditions and so on.

However, the limited presence of utilitarian items – tools, machines, etc – made the exhibition as a whole feel unbalanced. Of course, the fact that my feet were tiring, painfully, of visits to monuments may have exaggerated my sense of frustration!?

Here is a limited sample of what we saw, beginning with a statue of Rameses I and concluding with two very different images of an Indian rhinoceros: one, part of a famous early-16th century woodcut print by a German artist (he had only one sketch and some travellers’ tales to work from), which was part of a sign pointing to the other, a tricky-to-photograph 21st century hologram.

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48g-museum      48i-museum

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The full print of Dürer’s Rhinoceros was one of the 100 exhibits and, in fridge magnet form, we have brought a copy home with us. You can learn more about it here.

The final post from our visit to Canberra will share our dining highlights with you.

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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Visit to Canberra: a symphony in five monuments (day 1)

Maggie and I recently spent a few days in the region of Canberra, the capital of Australia. The next couple of posts will cover our visits to five national monuments, followed by some of the excellent food we ate in and around Canberra.

(I have used the word ‘symphony’ as a descriptor for this set of experiences. We do like to orchestrate our travels and, in a real way, the journey from monument to monument felt like a series of components of an integrated whole. Besides, it gave me the opportunity to apply the monument/movement pun!)

Australian War Memorial

The first item on our program was a visit to the nation’s principal war memorial, which also includes museum exhibits relating to all wars in which Australia has been involved, ie since 1901.

The memorial buildings are in a typically Australian setting – a variety of trees and shrubs in a semi-arid environment. From the front steps there is a striking view, across the artificial Lake Burley Griffin, to Parliament House. (You can admire that vista here, as well as a more detailed description of the site.)

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The entrance to the memorial is watched over by two stone lions, which originally formed part of the Menin Gate, in Ypres. (I recently wrote about our visit to Ypres.) The lions were donated to Australia by the Mayor of Ypres in 1936, as a gesture of friendship.

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The museum section also includes a copy of Menin Gate at Midnight by Australian artist Will Longstaff. He painted the work after attending the unveiling of the Gate, in July 1927. The foreground is dotted with steel-helmeted ‘spririts’, emerging from cornfields. You can find out more about this remarkable painting here.

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We then explored the museum exhibits associated with the First World War battlefields we had visited in Flanders and the Somme, including the astonishing collection of original Victoria Crosses awarded to Australian soldiers for gallantry. (The VC is the highest national award in each of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.)

As we made our way out of the museum section, we came across As of today, a remarkable sculptural monument to the 41 Australian soldiers who died while on duty in Afghanistan. This was especially poignant for Maggie – a close friend of her son is one of the 41 and her son was with him at the time. We attended his funeral, a deeply sorrowful event.

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From the museum, we moved to the memorial courtyard, which leads to the Hall of Memory, an imposing chapel in which the body of an unknown soldier was interred in 1993. The soldier had served on the Western Front and his name would be recorded on one of the sites we visited in September.

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The then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, made a powerful speech at the internment ceremony. You can find it here. The first I knew of this event, was when we visited the main Australian WW1 memorial outside Villers-Bretonneux; Keating’s words resonated very strongly with me.

From the chapel, we left the memorial via one of the two cloisters on the side of the courtyard. The walls of the cloisters contain the name of every Australian service man or woman who has been killed in war since 1901. The panels include provision for poppies to be attached next to a name, something we did for the friend of Maggie’s son.

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High Court of Australia

Our next visit was to the High Court, so it is probably time for me to insert some historical basics for the vast majority of my small band of followers that has never lived in Australia.

Until 1901, Australia was six separate colonies, which had been established from 1788 onwards through the presence of a mix of British troops, free settlers and convicts. On the first day of 1901, Australia became a single, unified nation and each of the former colonies became a state within the new federal system. The act of constitution which established Australia, and a national government and parliament, provided for the creation of a High Court, independent of government, with each new member being appointed by the government in a manner not unlike the US Supreme Court, for example.

The High Court has two main purposes: to resolve disputes about interpretation of the constitution, usually triggered by new legislation; and as the highest appeal court, determining matters that have arisen in a lesser state or federal court. The court comprises seven members or ‘justices’, one of whom is the Chief Justice, the most eminent judicial position in the country.

So, what did we see and learn by visiting the premises of the court?

Firstly, that the building is imposing. An in-house guide explained that this was an intention of the design brief, ie it should reflect the power and status of the court. He also pointed out that it was located off to the side of the central visual and planning axis of Canberra, which runs from the Australian War Memorial to Parliament House; this was to reflect the fact that the court is not subservient to the legislature. Interesting!

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Inside the building, the walls and staircases are adorned with works of art that are also monumental, each one specifically commissioned. In Court No 1, which is used only for cases regarding the Australian Constitution, a large tapestry carries the symbolic badges of the six states and the crest of the Commonwealth.

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Two paintings in the foyer of the court used for matters of appeal, depict the court’s inaugural sitting in a Melbourne courtroom in 1903, and its centenary, in Canberra.

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One artwork which I found particularly interesting and satisfying was Today now we all got to go by same laws, produced by Rosella Namok, an Australian aboriginal woman born in Queensland in 1979. I highly recommend that your read her description/explanation of the painting here; (you will also find that I missed two panels on the RH side when I took the photo).

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The next post will introduce you to the three national monuments that we visited on our second day in Canberra.

Until then, cheers!
Rick Grounds

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Dutch treat

 

dutch-apple-cake-7

 

A temporary ceasefire has been declared in the war of words about our visit to WW1 battlefields. I have three more posts left to prepare and I want to take the time and care required to make them interesting and informative. Care, I have, but time is scarce. Our garden is requiring more maintenance than I would like and, tomorrow morning, we are heading to our national capital, Canberra, for a few days.

The main purpose of this, our third visit to Canberra in the last five years, is to see an exhibition called ‘A history of the world in 100 objects from the British Museum’, which is being held at the Australian National Museum. While we are in Canberra, we plan to visit some other important national buildings, including the High Court, the National Library, the Australian War Memorial and, if we can squeeze it in, a second visit to the National Portrait Gallery. Fifteen-hour round trip, three nights, accommodation in a heritage-listed hotel and a couple of well-regarded eating establishments. Mad if we don’t, really!

But before I start packing a suitcase, here is an apple cake story for you to bite into.

Until recently, there were three apple cake recipes in our repertoire. (All of them can be found in earlier posts via links on the Index of Recipes page.) Now there is a fourth, my ‘Dutch’ apple cake.

When we spent a few days in Amsterdam in August, a modest culinary highlight was a slice of apple cake I enjoyed in one of that city’s numerous excellent cafes. As well as being delicious, it revived a long-ago palate memory and left me yearning to find a recipe with which I could attempt to reproduce the essence of these two pleasurable events.

After we came home, I did find a recipe and we gave it a whirl, but it fell short of expectations. The diagnosis? Too much cake, overwhelming the apple; and not enough spice, to complement the apple. So, modifications have been designed and implemented and my palate is VERY happy. Our recipe, which will, henceforth, be our preferred one for making an apple cake, follows.

IF you can discipline yourself to leave the cake largely intact for a day or two, it will reach peak condition on the third day, when some of the moisture from the fruit has infused the surrounding cake.

Ingredients

200g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
rounded ¼ tsp grated nutmeg
rounded¼ tsp cinnamon powder
2 apples (I use Golden Delicious), peeled, halved and cored
90g unsalted butter, softened
180g caster sugar
50ml milk
2 eggs
110ml milk, extra
20ml raw sugar or demerara sugar

Method

  1. Line the base of a 20cm non-stick cake tin with baking paper.
  2. Preheat oven to 175C
  3. Combine flour, baking powder and spices in a small bowl.
  4. Cut apple halves into thin slices, about 3mm.
  5. In a mixing bowl, cream the butter, caster sugar and as much of the 50ml of milk as it takes to enable the creaming process. Reserve any leftover milk.
  6. Beat in the eggs, one at a time.
  7. Add half of the milk (the reserved portion and the 110ml extra) and half of the flour mixture and fold in. Repeat with the balance of the milk and flour.
  8. Pour the batter into the cake tin. Press the slices, closely side by side, into the batter to form a ring around the central portion – 7-8cm across – of the batter (see photo below). (Tip: the slices from each half-apple should fit into one-quarter of the surface of the batter.)
  9. Bake for about 35 minutes, until it tests clean.

dutch-apple-cake-8

WW1 postilities will resume next week.

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