Up hill and down dale
Armidale, in the New England region of New South Wales, is my second home. Though I’ve moved many times over the years, my Grandparents have always lived in the same town, in the same street, in the same house. Indeed, they were living there long before I was a sparkle in anyone’s eye, being my Grandmother’s family home and the place where she and my Grandfather have spent nearly 65 years of married life. Not a year of my life has gone by without at least one visit to the house my Grandmother and mother grew up in.
While my usual modus operandi when travelling is to seek out local eateries and providores, I could probably count the times I’ve dined out in Armidale on one hand. Time spent at my Grandparents’ house is time spent around the dining table. Armidale to me tastes like cornflakes, homemade marmalade on toast, ribbon sandwiches, curried eggs, grilled chops, steak and kidney pie, strong tea, Schweppes lemonade and, most of all, stewed local boysenberries with Blue Ribbon ice cream. All lovingly prepared and eaten with the same well worn bone-handled cutlery I have used my whole life.
Grandma’s kitchen has also seen some notable guest appearances over the years. Often told is the story of my Uncle who, in an attempt to display his considerable culinary prowess to his new mother-in-law, set about preparing an exotic curry. On returning from a brisk constitutional, my Grandmother got one whiff of the pungent shrimp paste he was using before promptly leaving again for another, much longer, constitutional.
Now in her 90th year, Grandma is still going strong in the kitchen and even trying new recipes, though she has allowed my parents to take over the task of feeding visiting family. Fish sauce is even an accepted ingredient. With tradition fading, we are also discovering some of Armidale’s dining options, amongst which there are some gems.
Our latest and greatest discovery is The Goldfish Bowl bakery. In addition to a popular espresso bar near the city centre, the Goldfish Bowl empire has expanded to include a cafe built around a huge wood-fired oven which, in the vein of Sydney’s Bourke Street Bakery, turns out rustic pastries and rough-hewn loaves of sourdough. There is also a concise and constantly-changing menu of breakfast and lunch specials with an emphasis on local and sustainable ingredients.
If you want to eat though, my advice is to BE QUICK at all costs. Open from ’7ish’, specials on the menu, pastries and even the bread tend to sell out quickly. Another thing often in short supply is seating, so get your mits on whatever you can, be it a cushioned milk-crate or brightly-coloured kindy chair. Sunny days are perfect for a couple of expertly made brews, of the caffeinated variety of course, enjoyed in the courtyard surrounded by a kitchen garden of herbs and beans scaling the back wall.
Visiting for breakfast at the weekend after a long drive up the mountain from Grafton, I was devastated when the special of grilled local figs, ricotta and candied walnuts on sourdough and my back-up choice of croissant were both sold out. I was reluctantly compelled to try one of their almond croissants; reluctantly, as I’m usually not a fan, caked as they often are with icing sugar and almonds flaking off left right and centre. Happily, my initial disappointment was soon forgotten when this delicious morsel arrived at my table, rich pastry filled with a mixture of ground almonds and not an almond flake in sight. I also bought a loaf of olive, haloumi and mint sourdough for the road which has proved delicious topped with avocado and drizzled with olive oil.
It seems as if both Armidale and I have grown up a lot. The retro crockery, cutlery and furnishings that make the Goldfish Bowl and other like places so trendy are the kind that characterise my Grandmother’s house, though she has had them since the first time around. One thing’s for sure. As much as I adore eating out, I’d take a slice of my Grandma’s steak and kidney pie any day.