Happy new year readers! May I be the first to say: thank god that’s over. The year of our lord 2010 was, in many ways, a traumatic one for me, and I will be endeavouring not to think about it at least until I have to publish my memoirs to fulfil the obligations of a lucrative publishing contract.
Among many unexpected developments throughout the year, one which I welcomed with excitement however was the procurement of my first motor vehicle. At twenty seven, I have waited longer than most to experience this rite of passage. I had hitherto resisted such an acquisition citing environmental, financial and health considerations while in fact preferring to spend my money on boozy dinners at Marque. Almost a year to the day after arriving in the countryside however, I succumbed to the desire for wet-weather transport and brought home an immaculate 1991 Toyota Corolla. It has been christened Chairman Kaga in honour of its Nipponese heritage, after the founder of Iron Chef, that most 90s of institutions.
This weekend the Chairman and I went on our first big day out to visit my dear friends the Little Piggies at their home in Yamba by the seaside. First though, we made a diversion off the highway to Maclean, “The Scottish Town in Australia”, also known as the home of one of the most unsightly and controversial bat colonies in New South Wales. Lately it has also been earning a reputation for its culinary and cultural attractions, with a small but wonderful collection of cafes, shops and galleries making it worthy of a detour, or for Valley locals, a regular pilgrimage.
Located on the Clarence River, the town of 3,500 proudly flaunts its Gaelic Pride, with tartans adorning its electricity poles, street signs written in Gaelic as well as English, and annual events such as its Easter Highland Gathering.
But while I come for the kitsch, I stay for the coffee. My first stop on the way into town is Espresso Botero, a rapidly growing boutique roaster supplying cafes up and down the east coast. At their Maclean headquarters you can now enjoy a brew just metres away from the warehouse where the beans are roasted daily. The retail space has recently been converted into a slick espresso bar, where customers can sample their range of blends, and browse their impressive range of domestic espresso machines. Owner Danny Young is passionate about good coffee, and Botero is by far the best grind I have tasted since I was a stone’s throw from Campos. Its increasing availability on the north coast and beyond has much increased one’s chances of finding a decent cup, frankly not a moment too soon.
Fully caffeinated, it was time for a spot of lunch at On the Bite which, in my humble opinion, is the best cafe in the Clarence Valley, if not on the North Coast. There are hints of serious coffee geekery on display, with brewing paraphernalia and bean-themed reading material decorating the cosy interior which brings a little bit of Melbourne to the north. Indeed, that’s where their coffee hails from, by boutique NZ-based roaster Coffee Supreme. Co-owner Rob makes a great cup, and one of the simple joys of eating here is quietly admiring his dexterity carrying several orders at once, never forgetting who ordered what or spilling a drop. He handles the floor with the skill of one who has done this before, likely at somewhere of note. Forgive my fawning, but this is refreshing in a neck of the woods where coffee orders are almost invariably met with the ubiquitous “D’ya want that in a cup or a mug, love?” and you’re lucky to receive your order without half of it sloshing in the saucer.
It’s the food I come for though, and it’s consistently excellent. The concise menu focuses on Middle-Eastern and Asian flavours, and while ‘global’ menus can sometimes lead to confusion on the plate, each dish here is carefully and expertly prepared and seasoned. Something tells me that the secret ingredient is love. This time around I opted for the Bangalow pork belly poached in masterstock and then caramelised in the pan. Cooked to sweet, tender perfection, it was complimented by a crunchy and fresh Asian-style slaw. Small details delighted such as the contrast of crunchy fresh red chilli with crispy caramelised green chilli. Zing!
After all this indulgence, my last stop was Eklektika, a surprising and delightful shop, the kind which you might expect to find in Newtown, Surry Hills or Fitzroy.
Every available surface is covered in an artfully chaotic collection of clothing, books, jewellery, antiques and other ephemera. Sensory overload ensues, accompanied by the overwhelming desire to buy one of each.
For such a small town Maclean is punching above its weight, and the combination of its proximity to the highway, picturesque riverfront location and currently affordable real estate mean that its future is bright. Whether you come for a highland gathering or a latte, I can certainly recommend finding out what Maclean’s got under its kilt…
Espresso Botero – 277 River Street, Maclean, 1300 540 337
On The Bite – 215 River Street, Maclean, 6645 4488
Eklektika – 241 River Street, Maclean, 02 6645 2929
When we write, we sometimes run out of words. This is because we come to the edge of the city of words, where there are no more words left in the place we find ourselves.
Now beyond the limits of this city, I have no map, no compass, no words. All I have is my trusty camera to record what I see, to remember colour, shape, sound and smell while I can’t find the words to capture them for keeping.
Grafton’s Jacaranda Festival, Australia’s oldest floral festival and now in its 76th year, painted the town purple for one week in November. Tradition and the excuse to get purple and get silly were embraced by young and old. Here are some glimpses of our town in costume. There are more on my flickr page.
Now that I’m a officially a country dweller, I have been immersing myself in country life and traditions. It has taken a decade away from the the town I grew up in to finally appreciate the uniquely rural things which I once took for granted, or perhaps never noticed. I have found myself gawking at day-old-chicks in rural co-ops, attending cattle dog trials and visiting livestock sales, things which make me feel like a tourist in my own town.
The highlight so far has been my inaugural Country Women’s Association meeting. For almost eighty years, the CWA has worked to improve the lives of women and children Australia-wide, their proud motto stating their cause:
Honour to God
Loyalty to the Throne
Service to the Country
Through Country Women
For Country Women
By Country Women
While ‘Honour to God’ and ‘Loyalty to the Throne’ seem outdated and irrelevant to someone of my generation, the sentiment behind this simple statement is really something that I can come at. Sisters doin’ it for themselves! The CWA works tirelessly towards fundraising and advocacy at the local, state and even international levels, as well as providing a forum for women to socialise, provide mutual support, swap stories and recipes, and hold crafternoons. This realm of country women is classically viewed as more tea-and-scones than militant feminist, but I struggle to think of another organisation which has done more for the advancement of Australian women than the CWA.
I approached my first meeting with trepidation, not knowing what to expect. I had heard vague stories about younger women being frozen out by suspicious old biddies in some chapters and, knowing that I am not the most conventional of country women, I was hoping that my Converse All Stars and asymmetrical haircut wouldn’t make a bad impression. Thankfully a friend planned to join with me, so I wasn’t the only new kid.
Once we finally found our destination, the local CWA rooms next to the local Baby Health Clinic (most likely founded by the CWA), we were in fact greeted with warmth and excitement by all of the ladies, who seemed delighted to have some ‘young ones’ in the group. I was quietly awe-struck by my surroundings as I realised that I had finally found ‘my people’. In fact, it struck me that my decoration style is really just a second-rate imitation of CWA chic as I took in the walls decorated with embroided mottoes and anthems, a portrait of QEII c1970s, dolls and drawings donated by members past, and cushions for us to sit on made with all manner of ‘retro’ fabrics.
Excluding my friend and I, the average age of the attendees was, I would guess, about seventy. I admired a delightful lady sitting in front of me, immaculately groomed, with a classic purple rinse, manicured lavender nails and matching make-up; it was later noted that she would be celebrating her 90th birthday in January. It soon became apparent that these nannas were no soft touch though. The boisterous chair of our meeting, the chapter President, had a shock of vivid red hair and a personality to match; my companion and I hooted with laughter as she regularly inserted cheeky jokes into the proceedings. I was reminded of the first time I heard Margaret Fulton address an audience, and how startled I was by her colourful turn of phrase and, well, her kick-arse ‘tude.
Of course, upon further reflection, it stands to reason that kick-arse ‘tude is what has allowed these women, and so many others of their generation, to help build a nation; forging careers, bringing up families and coming together to improve their own lives, and those of others. As a member of a younger generation, I am thankful for the opportunity to learn from them and hear their stories. I hope to take their traditions and make them my own, to be a custodian of the great legacies of the CWA.
Naturally one of the greatest legacies of all is the famous collection of no-nonsense recipes, and following our meeting we nibbled on date cake cut into rounds and served with a smear of butter and a cup of tea. Chatting to the baker, I learned that the delicate shape was the result of cooking the cake in a baked-bean tin. My first CWA cooking tip!
Inspired by the traditions of the CWA, I have been trying my hand at preserving. Some twittering about what to do with a bottle of rosewater languishing in the pantry yielded the suggestion of a rhubarb, strawberry and rose preserve which I could use to flavour a luscious Eton mess. I searched in vain for a recipe combining these ingredients, but not finding anything satisfactory, I decided to make one up. This being my inaugural attempt at making jam, I was only too conscious of the fact that coming up with my own recipe was a foolhardy tactic, but surprisingly, the result was spectacular. While this can mainly be credited to the superior local produce, I am led to believe that it has a lower sugar content than most jams, leaving it beautifully tart and not too sweet. Just how I like it! I hope my new friends at the CWA would be proud!
Strawberry, Rhubarb and Rose Preserve
750g strawberries, hulled and quartered
500g rhubarb, sliced into 1 x 4cm batons
2 cups sugar
juice of half a lemon, seeds tied into a square of muslin
1/2 tbsp rosewater, or to taste
handful dried rose petals (optional)
Combine rhubarb in a bowl with half the sugar and lemon juice. In a separate bowl, combine strawberries with the rest of the sugar and lemon juice. Macerate for half an hour (refrain from masticating). In a heavy-based saucepan over a medium heat, cook the rhubarb mixture, adding the lemon seeds, for about ten minutes, or until it completely breaks down. Stir vigorously, using a whisk if necessary, to really break up the stems for a smooth texture. Add the strawberries and cook for another ten minutes or so, until the fruit is cooked and the mixture bubbly and sticky. Add half the rosewater, mix well, then taste. If you prefer a stronger rose flavour, add more. Be careful: a little bit goes a long way! Pour into sterilised jars (don’t forget to remove the muslin) and store in the pantry. Serve with thick, buttered white bread, on ice cream, or as part of an Eton mess!
Strawberry, rhubarb and rose Eton mess (serves 6 gluttons)
1 punnet strawberries
Strawberry, rhubarb and rose preserve (see above)
1 1/2tbsp caster sugar
500ml whipping cream
2 tbsp white sugar
Meringues (makes more than you need)
250g egg whites
450g caster sugar
40g pure icing sugar
finely grated rind of one lemon
For meringues, preheat oven to 120C. Whisk eggwhites and caster sugar in an electric mixer on medium speed until firm peaks form. Fold in icing sugar and lemon rind, then spoon into grapefruit-sized mounds on baking trays lined with baking paper. Bake until hard on the outside and soft on the inside (30-40 minutes), then cool.
Hull and halve strawberries, and macerate in caster sugar in the fridge for an hour or so before serving. Whisk cream and white sugar in a bowl until soft peaks form (4-5 minutes; do not overbeat). Add a couple of drops of rosewater for flavour and fragrance. Chill.
To serve, in a large bowl, spoon layers of cream, crumbled meringue, strawberries and preserve, finishing with some strawberries on top.
It is a sad reflection on the modern world that Grafton Shoppingworld is essentially the hub of our community. Recently redeveloped and expanded, it now houses an extra supermarket and 50% more chain stores selling cheap clothing and gimcrack destined for landfill in the not too distant future. I am eternally horrified by the scores of people eating McDonalds and Subway in the garish, artificially-lit food court daily.
I am by no means against the provision of new commercial and retail opportunities in rural Australia, but I object to the construction of these cathedrals of consumerism; built to a formula, devoid of good design, airless and artificial. The redevelopment of our shopping centre has been to the detriment of our picturesque and historic main street; our commercial hub now has its back turned to the sunny promenades of the past. This is by no means unique to Grafton, or to the country; since the advent of the shopping centre in the mid-twentieth century, less efficient ‘main streets’ have been slowly suffocating everywhere from Bondi to Broome.
And yet, our community has sought to make this monocultural monostrosity its own, with regular displays by community groups exhibiting the work of their members, attracting new audiences, selling raffle tickets for charitable causes, and simply entertaining and delighting. At a display for History Week in September, I met many of the hardworking volunteers who devote countless hours to preserving our community history. During Public Education Week, proud parents looked on as their young children sang in their school choir, sandwiched between Coles and Country Fresh Chicken. Yesterday a petition to protest the announced closure of the local Telstra call centre attracted crowds of passers by, a news camera at the ready to capture a rare glimpse of local state and federal MPs from different sides of parliament united by the concerns of their constituents.
Indeed, yesterday my mother and I headed to Shoppingworld for the express purpose of attending a flower show presented by the Grafton District Orchid Society. Not since Chris Cooper’s turn as the toothless orchid thief in Adaptation have I found these exotic flowers so fascinating. One of the members explained that they like to put on these free annual displays so that people can bring their families to admire the unusual flowers. Pamphlets with information about different species and orchid care were offered free of charge to budding enthusiasts. They were more than happy for me to take as many photographs as I liked, proud to share their hard work with anyone who cared to admire it; indeed this display of exotic beauty and community spirit transcended its surroundings.
I have once again, and for the last time, changed the name of this collection of culinary and cultural adventures. At some unrecognised point over the past nine months, I went from being a visitor in my parents’ house to being an official third wheel, inhabiting one of the guest rooms in their dream house (not constructed with wayward adult children in mind) with my extensive collection of books, snow domes and 1970s gewgaws.
The new guise of my blog reflects not only the dearth of continental cheese counters in the Clarence Valley, my home, but pays tribute to the abundance of picturesque pre-processed sugar and beef products in the region. It is also a homage to great artists who wrote of the country before me, remembering and telling its stories (it should be noted however, that while these artists originated in Queensland, I most certainly did not).
There are worse places that one could call home. Byron Bay for example. For the casual visitor, the idea of Byron Bay (pristine beaches and a hippy atmosphere complemented by luxury resorts, an urbane culinary and consumer culture, and the promise of spiritual healing) is far more attractive than the reality (a cross between Newtown and the Gold Coast circa 2002).
Such a comparison is bound to polarise readers, and I do not mean to offend, but Byron Bay has long enjoyed a mythological reputation among travelers as a kind of earthly paradise. I simply emphasise the word ‘mythological’.
Having said that, it is the easternmost point of a region which could be described as God’s own country. Turn left off the Pacific Highway instead of Byronwards, and you will find yourself among lush rolling green hills with glimpses of the sea; fertile land which produces a cornucopia of tropical fruit, artisan dairy products, eggs from happy chickens occupying some of Australia’s finest real estate; famous sweet pork; and fine pasture-fed beef. The small hamlet of Bangalow was described to me recently as the Melbourne of the north, alluding to its sophisticated restaurants and quirky boutiques, but this is to negate the attraction of its country charms; the small town which has flourished without becoming overpopulated and overdeveloped.
This week however, it was an appointment in Byron Bay which drew me north. I tried to look past the grotty streetscapes which have seen better days and found traces of the mythological Byron Bay at the weekly farmers’ market, by the seaside, and amongst the cheap chain stores. I visited Byron Bay so you don’t have to. Unless you want to. In which case, by all means go.
I live in South Grafton. I grew up, however, in Grafton, which lies on the other side of the Clarence River. The north side doesn’t need a geographical qualifier, because it is essentially the centre of the township. The ‘real’ Grafton. It’s the part you see on the postcards, with the famous avenues of Jacaranda trees and beautiful heritage streetscapes. The main shopping centre is there, recently redeveloped, with Woolworths, Coles, Big-W and Target providing for all possible shopping needs. There is even a second Coles a few blocks over, just in case the main one is too far away.
In South, we’re stuck with the dirt mall; Bi-lo and a couple of dodgy takeaways. It’s an emotive issue, but South Grafton has traditionally been viewed as the poor cousin to its northern counterpart, with visibly seedier goings-on and rather less in the way of entertainment. It’s true, I was woken at 4.30am on Friday morning when a fire truck parked outside my house, the firefighters battling to extinguish a vehicle, torched by vandals, which threatened to explode. To be fair, this is not a regular occurrence; at least in the part of South Grafton I live in.
Scandal erupted when my parents decided to cross the river, several years after I had left home. The close-knit group of friends with whom they dine each Friday night was shocked, as they had hitherto all lived in the same street, in a fairly well-to-do part of town. Once the predictable jibes died down (they have never entirely subsided), there were practical matters to consider. When it was my parents’ turn to host dinner, would it be safe to park in the street? How would one get home if one inadvertently consumed too many alcoholic beverages? And yet, my parents boldly forged ahead with plans to build their dream home on a river block, which happened to be on the south-siyeeed. Indeed, the house has since been the venue for many an impressive soiree, with its enviable 270-degree water views visible from the expansive decks, a hard-won reward for years of hard work and careful planning.
Like other moves they had made before, my parents showed impressive foresight with their river crossing. While South Grafton was a bit rough around the edges, they could see that it had potential. When they moved in, the main street was slightly dilapidated and neglected, but new businesses and cafes had begun to appear, and it was a quiet alternative to the hustle and bustle of the metropolis to the north. That was over five years ago, and their predictions for South Grafton’s bright future are now coming to fruition. As interest in the area increased, the council responded by investing in major landscaping and beautification works in the main street, in turn encouraging further growth.
To celebrate the main street upgrade, the community hosted a street party this weekend. Part of me was proud of my adopted hometown and excited to celebrate with my fellow South Graftonians. Another part of me feared that it would be a bit lame, further reinforcing existing northern prejudices. Happily, it was a block party for the ages, the kind of festival that you only find in country towns; free of pretensions, delightfully daggy and a celebration of all things local.
In South Grafton, ‘all things local’ apparently includes talented craftspeople from wool spinners to painters; vintage car enthusiasts; nannas who bake; primary producers; school choirs; roller derby girls; a guinea pig stud specialising in rare breeds (who knew there were pedigree guinea pigs!); and an enthusiastic society of Morris dancers. Sensory overload ensued, but I tried to capture the essence of the day for posterity, and to share with those who have never known the eccentric joys of country living. I am proud to call myself a South Graftonian!