Friday, 4 November 2016

Whitecross St Market

Go there
"... because who knows what they put in it, it's dirty and it's dear", said an older-generation in-the-good-ol'-days Londoner colleague when I asked him why he never gets his lunch from Whitecross St market, down the road from us. I knew there's no point arguing, the man is blinkered by his own conviction and that's that... but I know otherwise.

The prep
My greatest pleasure walking into work each day is passing through the still dormant market street. The stalls are only just being set up, some not even fully erected yet. The earlier birds already prepping their wares. And this is where the magic lies for me - mounds of fresh, crunchy vegetables being chopped, later to be made into curries, stir-fries, pies, nestled into sandwiches, wraps and salad boxes; falafel batter assembled, dotted with coriander and glistening like gritty wet mud; rice fluffing gently in pots, its musky aroma wafting enticingly;
 
Chicken and kimchee, a creative process at work, #Bibento
 
Pots of rice left to silently steam
Eerie calm before the storm
meat browned and braised, pit-roasted and grilled; a row of women stretching Turkish gözleme dough on large round metal plates, preparing to fill them with cheese, sausage, spinach; a long table groaning under the weight of an odd assembly of homemade cakes, imaginatively married with chocolate bars and cereals; coffee beans ground and a display of fresh pastries laid out. And men and women pushing heavy carts loaded with steel bars, canopies and wooden boards, warming trays and containers of water to boil for the heated display units. Everyone knows each other, talks to each other, collaborates, there's laughing, singing. Some days you'll see the chorizo sandwich woman working on the Bulgogi stall, others the Italian ciabatta guy is chopping veg with the vegan curry team, mixing and helping out. A true community.
What are our lunch alternatives? Mass produced Pret, Eat, Abokado (it's spelled avocado, fools) and their ilk, or worse - supermarket ready meals? Factory prepared and distributed from miles away? Low to mid-range chain restaurants such as Haz, Thai Square, Chilango et al? With their off-site precooked low-cost high-revenue menu items, lifeless and joyless?

Gaby's Ravello
THE spot for... well... ANY pasta you fancy!
 
Whitecross at full throttle

Ideally, of course, lunch is sensibly brought from home - economic, healthy and exactly to your taste. But what of those days where you weren't organised, got up late, simply empty-fridged before shopping day? You could enjoy some of the best and most varied cuisines in London, all in one place. And yes, street food markets are not exactly rare these days. But this market's edge is that it's very much on a residential street, small enough not to overwhelm, obscure enough not to be flooded with tourists, substantial enough not to be irritatingly hipsterish, old enough to still have something for everyone, even those who resent the prices - my grumpy colleague can't resist Holmesbake, the pie and mash stall once in a while... made from scratch daily, with heaps of fluffy potato mash, slathered with gravy from the generous portion of meaty pie, nestled within it. It's enough to make one seek an empty office for an afternoon nap!









What better than being familiar with the trial and tribulations of Bibento, the bulgogi stall, its many incarnations and its owner's Bogna's negotiation of its journey to its eventual direction. From Swedish soups, then Korean soups, to bibimbap, to tea, and finally here we are, a fusion Korean creation which has stuck and succeeded.



Veggie sushi wrap from #Bibento


Cake-stravaganza
Or salivating at Big John's cake stall, where his sweet creations can tempt anyone away from an aspirationally sugar-free existence. And where else would you find the kind of trader who is encouraging about your succeeding in staying away from his wares - 'good for you!', he would tell me, 'I wish I had the willpower!'. The man is purely in it for the love of baking.





These babies speak for themselves




Yes, this is a tray of cream egg brownies!
Or how about having a chat with Joe, the extremely successful owner of Chao, and him picking your brain for development ideas, to keep his thumb firmly on the pulse of public tastes! Joe reveals he arrived in the UK as an infant, as one of the "boat-people" at the end of the Vietnam war. We smile sadly at the thought of current affairs bringing a sombre reminder from the past... Joe had a restaurant on the Shoreditch Viet-strip, then decided to keep it simple - a no-frills, but always authentically soul-satisfying, takeaway. The main branch has all the basics - Phở , Huế, banh mi and bún thịt nướng (yeah alright I'm showing off a bit) are on the menu. His enterprise has now diversified to include another shop, and three stalls, selling tom yum soup, chicken satay, and addictively decadent crispy pork! 
Crispy nomnomness
That is one mo-pho



















Or talk politics and psychology with Stéphan of Whitecross Coffee, (pka Pitch 42), over a freshly ground, fastidiously prepared cup of flat white and a croissant, me ensuring I allow the testy office bods, gasping in the early morning queue for their first hit, to be served as we chat. A warm spot in my heart remains for long-standing servers - Harriet, who is finally a full time partner in the venture, embarking on its artistic redesign and branding; and still pining for Doug to come back - oh Doug, your effervescent charm could pierce any cynicism, and no grump could remain so in your presence! This is how you want your coffee - strong, flavourful and warming. Doug took care of the warming, even on the coldest days.


The ceremonial apportioning - an 11 hour affair
Or one cannot fail to mention Sawadee, probably the best Thai in London and the most worth-the-wait, slowest queue since Soviet Russia. The couple running it disappear on holiday for a whole summer month, to the distress of the surrounding office workers, and on their return raise the cost by a teeny-tiny margin, still managing to remain the best value meal on the market. Ladled out with careful, loving deliberation, the curries on offer are never less than an aromatic journey for the palate, with a decent heat upgrade option for the chilli enthusiasts. The experienced, will slyly turn up at 12:00 on the dot, as the man pulls the blind up on the van front, revealing the trays of steaming coconuty sauces, in order to at least be in the running for a relatively short wait.




There are always new stalls popping up. Some make it, some don't. When one-item menu stall, The Shack Food Co, started out, I wouldn't have placed any bets on it lasting. Coming up the rear of hipsterish pulled pork revilval, Yan and his partner set up, with their facial hair and 80s semi-ironic retro tunes playing. They did fairly well - ethically sourced meat, freshly made sauces and salads, and just on the high end of Whitecross prices, but not overly so; they quickly sussed the foodie market had tired of the product, and managed to cunningly turn it around, with a fresh spin on Japanese chicken katsu curry with smacked cucumber, pickled chilli and rice. Beautiful, moreish, and they even do a double-meat portion for an additional £1.50. Dangerous.

Yowza.
It would be impossible mention all the traders here. They are all fantastic and popular. Hoxton Beach is truly the best falafel I've had in London. They appear in several other markets, including the atmospheric Maltby St on weekends. Say yes to the aubergine and the pickles. The queue at Luardo, the burrito stall is ALWAYS long, as is the queue at Maison Crepes, the gluten-free galette stall. The chicken tikka wraps and the salads and the game burgers, Spanish paella, Italian ciabattas, more Thai, Brazilian stews, German wurst...

Just beware of the belt and/or wallet unbuckling.




Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Shutting Leo Out

Over the week or so I'd stayed at Kathy and Gary's, Leo and I grew close. We took trips together, worked together, and seemed to enjoy an intuitive bond. Naturally, we had discussed how wonderful it's been. We pondered our age difference, over 20 years, and the way we each see our individual futures, our hopes and plans and wondered if we could converge our paths and attempt to build a relationship. In fact, the seafood dinner at the harbour restaurant was the perfect opportunity for Leo to put his cards on the table, and find out whether I was game.

In spite of, or perhaps as result of, the strange pull we experienced towards each other, I hesitated to run with it. There was awkwardness, as, try as I might, I couldn't bring myself to see through the fog of fear and uncertainty. I kept thinking of how romantic taking this path with him would be, how wild and entirely the way I pictured the true life I should be leading to be - untethered, in harmony with the moment, off the grid. With a person I am in synch with, with whom I experience mutual empathy and love. But the truth, as I had to admit it to myself later on, was, that although I felt love for him, I had not fallen in love with him. Not as yet, anyway - from experience, it takes me more than just one week. And perhaps that indicated some great deficiency in my emotional makeup, a failure to engage my feelings. Perhaps I could've overridden this temporary, trivial and superficial resistance. Or perhaps in the back of my mind I was preoccupied with thoughts of home, my sister, my parents, and the uncertainty of when I'll be needed. Still, I couldn't help it, and it stood against my character to try and fake it.

Leo was understanding, as men who possess the mature capacity for empathy, and an appreciation of the complexities of life, tend to do. We left it be, for now.

The Gordon-Franklin river cruise is a beautiful, serene ride, once the extremely touristy bellowing loudspeaker announcements of 'and you can purchase one of those at….' touting souvenir tat subsides. Still, I suppose it is part and parcel of taking this sort of cruise. The boat manoeuvred out the harbour through Hells Gates - for us, an exciting feat, as we'd seen it from the Macquarie Head beach angle, and now got to experience just how narrow it was, and the cause for many a shipwreck. Once through, a massive rock lobster was waved at us from shore by a couple of successful fishermen, returning from their early morning run. We then careened towards the Gordon river as the boat glided into the silent forest.


The Gordon-Franklin river
 

The photo which changed the course of a river (or, rather, kept it)
It was lovely, especially since I'd taken my precautionary sickness pill, and was in a borderline-psychedelic, dreamlike state. It was, however, frustrating to see, but not be allowed to actually walk through the dense forest. This was a preservation requirement, of course, as these areas are untouched by human hand nor trampled by its foot. Having already had a chance to walk through some Tasmanian rainforest, I couldn't help but feel slightly short-changed – to see but not touch. In fact, when we did dock for a rapid ten minute trot around a decked path within the forest, we were sternly warned not to touch anything. It was a little too much nannying for our liking, the place was too beautiful not to connect with its inhabitants physically. And after all, as far I was aware - according to my hippy wannabe guru, Susan of Wilmot - trees like being hugged. This was all too contrived, too artificially constructed as a plastic bubble within a world of wonder. At one point our attention was even directed at what was purported to be the hide of a tiger snake, but the guide oddly seemed to know it was going to be there before we got to the spot. I knew snakes are territorial, and therefore easy to monitor by a wildlife expert, but Leo and I narrowed our eyes in suspicion. Could a faux-snakeskin have been left on the log as a permanent photo-op? Who could tell.
 

Having been herded back onto the boat, it then carried on to Sarah Island, upon which - could it be?... - who awaited to guide us through the site, but those same actors from the Ship That Never Was production! Understandable, as the play is the story of an attempted escape from the island. This was truly a conglomerate, a labyrinth of tourist traps from which there was no escape. We were permitted, though, this time, to walk through the island unaided, free to fondle the flora to our heart's content. We wafted from ruin to ruin, hut remain to hut remain, taking in the feel of the place and catching a passing hammed-up anecdote from the thespians, as they waxed lyrical about life on the Island, bringing it all back to life as if we'd been transported back in time.


Ruin
Described as a "living hell", the British penal settlement was nigh impossible to escape, due to its location, making boat access very tricky. The unruly labour force was used in turning the place into a profitable pine logging and shipbuilding enterprise. A means to discipline and control the uncontrollable, conditions on the island were, as to be expected, extremely harsh, particularly as supplies were short and difficult to transport across from the mainland. Lasting only eleven years, the place was practically a fully functioning village, attempting to utilise any of the inmates' skills to keep it going. However the challenging access forced its closure in its penal capacity, later on to be used as an occasional pine logging resource only.
Sarah Island 1822-1833
 
 
Once the island has been sufficiently explored, the actors were popped back into their boxes, and us ignorant uncouth masses were hoiked back on the boat for a hearty lunch - mounds of smoked salmon, although oddly nothing from the local rainbow trout farms we had pointed out to us on the way. The boat then lulled gently back to the Strahan harbour.
 
On our return, Gary was having a late afternoon nap, which meant we were jobless. This was to be my final evening here, and I took it upon myself to prepare dinner. When he awoke, Gary brought out a bottle of wine 'for my last night', and we supped on my rather delicious borscht. With Kathy being veggie (and on a diet of no sugar, salt, yeast or fun), Gary often reminded me of a ravenous dog forced to live on lettuce leaves. I asked Leo about it and he said that they had a BBQ one night, and despite the meat being extremely sinewy, Gary scoffed the lot, gnawing on the bones and leaving absolutely nothing for the distraught cat. I saw that as a sign of deep commitment - an enthusiastic bone gnawer voluntarily opting for an exclusively leafy lifestyle.
 
After dinner, the wine, the stories, Leo and I took a long sunset walk along the harbour, ruminating how amazing life can be when you just allow it to happen. It was a beautiful evening.
 
The next day I got up early to make up for yesterday's laziness and got to work on the carrots in the garden. Gary took pity on me about midday and sent me off to cook lunch for us three, Kathy having gone to work. I came through again with a hearty veggie curry, although suddenly realised I might've taken this rare opportunity to throw some animal protein on the hob for the flesh-yearning guys. Thankfully, whatever disappointment they were experiencing was not evident, and Gary fell into a chatty mood again, embarking on a talking spree. This time, unfortunately, I was forced to stop him mid-flow, as I had to rush for the bus headed to Margate - a tiny town near Hobart - Tassie's capital - to meet my next host.

This all meant a hurried goodbye with Leo, who drove me to the bus stop. The stress of rushing, my conflicted heart, the anger at Leo for wanting more and not having the opportunity to search my own feelings further, caused a less than adequate parting, with me practically storming off - frustrated at my inadequacy at a final tender moment. This was the last I saw of him. 
 

Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Poul of Chicken

Voodoo. There, got your attention. Chickens are a culture-bridging fowl. Practically every tradition has space for it in some respect, and there has almost always been a spiritual element to it - whether in shamanic ritual, in symbolic atonement, in sacrifice. Or even in more everyday uses - waking us up, nourishing us, bringing us together around a table, making us feel part of a community or a family. It's a literal chicken and egg life cycle, a self contained allegory.

Puk-kah?
The relationship most cultures have with chicken as part of their gastronomic heritage is a firm one. Other than those following a herbivore conviction, of course. You cannot speak to anyone of their cultural cuisine without an almost religiously rooted chicken dish being mentioned: fried chicken - soul food; chicken soup - Jewish penicillin; chicken parmagiana - mama's cooking; Jerk chicken - the ultimate summer; coq au vin - wholesome rustic goodness; Tori katsu, teriyaki, yakitori - satisfying Japanese staples; Tandoori chicken - aromatic victory; chicken Paprikash - Balkan piquant delicacy. Numerous others, too many to mention! And of course - a chicken which has been roasted, in hundreds of variations.

For me, chicken has always been a stabilising food in times of crisis or just when life gets you down, in possession of almost mythical healing abilities. Whether psychosomatic, or truly medically beneficial, when I'm unwell I tend to crave it, then feel better almost immediately for having had it. But different dishes are called for different ailments: when it's any form of sniffles - chicken soup. How could anything feel more internally nurturing than that. When I've had a bowl of a clear, slightly fatty, rich broth, I immediately know I can sit back and let it work its wonders, relax and just be ill. And that in itself is half the way to recovery - after all, a neurotic like me isn't going to sit quietly and let illness take control. No! I will arm-wrestle it until, inevitably, I slump back, looking like a wrung rag, and with the horror of the realisation that I truly am sick, shuffle to the freezer and unleash a frozen tub of greenish-yellow ice, run it under the tap until it's loosened enough to plop into a pan and can be melted and brought to a gentle bubble on the stove.

A'mehaye (The Reviver)
To this end, there needs to be foresight and planning. If ever in a farmers market or a butchers, I tend to purchase a carcass, which is the perfect base for a fantastic broth. If a full roast bird has passed through my kitchen (more on that later on), the inedible bones, skin and other parts will not be wasted. Or, sometimes, feeling frivolously extravagant, I would use an actual piece or even a whole chicken to make the soup. But that really isn't necessary, as the meat itself, having cooked in the broth for a good couple of hours, becomes a little papery and crumbly. It loses the succulence which is preserved as a quicker slow-cooked dish; plus because of the long soak in the water, during which it renders all its flavour to the brew, it is left with none. Not that I wouldn't still pick any bits of meat left with zeal.

At any rate, once the chicken component is in a pot of water and has been brought to a rolling boiling point, turn the heat down, skim the top, and add all your veg - for me it's always aromatics - carrot, celery or celeriac, onion, a handful of parsley, a potato or two, courgette, and one tomato to give a lemony zing, plus bay leaves, whole peppercorns and plenty of salt. Leave on a low heat for a good hour and a half to two hours, skimming occasionally. Your poorly body will thank you.

There are some fascists out there, who, granted - make much nicer soup then me, demand that you throw away the vegetables you cooked the soup with, as they have served their purpose as flavouring, then add new ones for a fresher taste, cooked for a further 20 mins or so. Those people, brilliant chefs as they may be, are the enemies of everything that is basic frugal home economics, pushing luxury to an extent only employed by Michelin-aspiring restaurants, certainly not a whim my mum would ever have dreamed of indulging, and they should be stopped. Ok, they're not wrong, exactly... but personally, I really love the taste of my nutritionally devoid holy trinity et al. Unlike the chicken meat itself, of which any trace of flavour has been sucked dry, they function like fruit in a punch bowl - that secret kick at the bottom of your cup, when nobody seems to realise one half-strawberry has soaked more booze into it than the whole glass... a flavour explosion!

What am I, chopped liver?!...
Sometimes a general rundownness takes over - an overall exhaustion verging on ennui. At those times, chopped liver is the law. No, not Pâté, silly - only chopped liver will do. This is made with chicken livers which are sautéed, sometimes with a little red wine but traditionally with fat. They are "chopped", if you will, in a food processor, to a coarse consistency, or even roughly mashed with a fork, and mixed with caramelised onions, chopped hard boiled eggs, salt and lots and lots of pepper. The comforting savoury, chucky paste with its earthy umami and slight contrasting sweetness of the onions, on a slice of, well, anything really, doesn't need to come in large quantities. A small bowlful - which is invariably the amount produced per cooking batch - is more than enough to last a good two or three days.
 
When homesick, the big guns are required, the dish that speaks to the child in me, the essence of every kid who shares my culture - the chicken schnitzel. This, for whatever reason, is a dish that I will petulantly demand my mum make for me whenever I'm at home. It doesn't matter it's the easiest thing to cook in the WORLD, it doesn't matter that I'm an adult and she's possibly now older and wearier than the woman who tirelessly fried off mounds of golden escalopes of joy. The regression cannot be complete until I am 2 or 5 or 12 years old (who knows when I stopped behaving like a spoilt brat, if ever), stomp my foot and stubbornly proclaim 'I want schnitzel!'.
 

The correct serving portion of schnitzels per person
But really, it is so easy to make, almost embarrassingly so. Just take fine quality free-range - always free-range you fucking monsters! - chicken breasts, beat them slightly with some kind of butcher mallet or even a rolling pin, till they're flatter and wider, then dip them in flour, beaten egg seasoned with salt and pepper, and bread crumbs of any kind, then fry in semi-shallow very hot oil until golden on both sides. That's it. You can even zhouzh it all up with grated parmesan in the crumbs, herbs in the flour, chilli flakes, whatever! Or go Cordon Bleu stylee - only bastardised - by skipping the mallet part, instead slicing across the fat breast so you create a pocket, and stuffing it with cheese/ham/spinach/sautéed mushrooms/chorizo - again, your imagination is your limitation. Then flour-egg-crumbs it, fry as before, but finish it off in the oven as the plump parcel would take longer to cook all the way through. Never does a batch last longer than a day or two, at best. Trust me on this, they'll be hoovered up faster than a slingshot chicken.


And of course, the ultimate all-purpose remedy is the roast chicken. Now, there really are so many ways to cook this thing. The truth is that it's perfectly simple, regardless of what seasoning/brining/marinating/stuffing you decide to employ. For a 1.5k bird, heat the oven up to 220C, and put the room temperature anointed beast in, on a bed of vegetables if you so wish. Turn the heat down to 190C (170C fan) and leave in the oven undisturbed for an hour and twenty minutes. That's 1 hour 20 mins. Leave it! Then take it out and prick a metal spike into the fattest part of the thigh, and if the juices run clear - you're all good. Now, take the chicken out of the tray and leave to stand on a plate or board for about 20 minutes. Again, leave it! Don't pick at it or be tempted to eat the crispier bits. The juices that have run out while it stood, plus what's left in tray will make a beautiful gravy, various recipes for which can be found all over t'intermanet.
 
It's a bird! It's a plane! It's superman! No I was right the first time. It's a delicious bird.
 And now, all that's left to do is carve. That's a whole other messy affair... but when that's done, and the screams have died down, you've taken the sheeting off the floor and wiped the juices off the walls and ceiling, you're left with a few vaguely distinguishable chicken pieces, ready to eat with your vegetables, plus a perfectly beautiful carcass and the non-crispy skin at the back of the chicken which you can now use as... that's right, a base for chicken soup! And thus the circle of fowl is complete.

What's your must-have, soul-reviving chicken dish?


Friday, 26 August 2016

Letting Leo In

My dad was a man of contradictions. I know, you could say that about literally every person who's ever lived. But this seems to be an attribute of his, which reflects his existential internal rift. I could always rely on him for the darkest sense of humour, for slaying sacred cows whenever possible. At the same time, he remained throughout his life a very serious man - considered, fearful of rash decisions, often to a point of constipated inaction, which frustrated the rest of the family. He was a devout Socialist his whole life, yet followed conservative social norms in the most dogmatic fashion. 

Probably due to his strict upbringing, he was both respectfully fearful of the wrath of authority, yet a rebel at heart. He would never question doctors, lawyers, teachers, people who have reached the top echelons of social hierarchy, and this blind subservient compliancy ultimately contributed to his demise, failing to press for second opinions on diagnosis, or dispute lackadaisical courses of treatment. Yet he dedicated his later life, after years as a metal shop mechanic, to union work - naively, perhaps, ignoring any trace of corruption or skewed ideals, proceeding with a focused conviction of the value of integrity and culpability of humanity for each other's wellbeing - acting as legal advisor in work tribunals. Thereby he had found a way to question authority in the most fundamental way, but one which worked for him: finding where the rules were misappropriated or manipulated and ensuring justice is served, protecting the little man from the malevolent Capitalist.

Remembering my dad as I was growing up is in one of two modes - with an almost permanent slight grin, one side of the mouth curving upwards underneath his occasional moustache and hefty nose, a twinkle in his eyes as he's just dispensed some satirical or cutting - but never hurtful - observation. The other mode was as a stern, dictatorial, stubborn and arbitrary figure, unmoved by pleas or reasoning. If dad said no, it was pointless to try and argue. His word was Law. A fun, boundary-basher on one hand, a stone wall the other.

Later on, as an adult, his third mode was revealed - the depressive. Of a generation where introspective self-awareness was considered an indulgent waste of time and 'philosophising', his ultimate derisive term for anything deeper than the practical, he was ill-equipped to handle his crippling depression and nihilism, which also played a part in his deterioration.

But remembering him as a whole, complex person, divided within himself, is for me best encapsulated in a particular moment towards his final days. I was helping my dedicated mum and sister look after him, as he was deteriorating towards the unavoidable cul-de-sac in the most horrific fashion. My mum was out one morning, and I had managed to convince him to eat something so he could take his bundle of medications - food had been one of his absolute joys in life, now all but completely gone with the progress of the illness - and at his request brought him a thin slice of pumpernickel bread, smeared with cream cheese and sprinkled with chopped onion. My dad had a proclivity for the simple foods of his Germanic childhood. He ate up, with some effort. But did not manage to keep it down. As I was cleaning up, dismissing his unnecessary embarrassed apologies, he looked up at me with that little smile of his and said: 'well at least it tasted good coming up too'.

Ol' metal shop fingers and me





A transit van pulled up across the road from me, and an American man in his 50s disembarked. I knew he was an American, because he had that slick yet slightly outdated small-town look only American men in their 50s manage to achieve - a golf shirt, Bermuda shorts, a white moustache, round framed glasses and a straw hat. Like he stepped out of a Stephen King novel. But not evil.

Strahan - first impression
He walked over cautiously, having been tasked with collecting me, and politely enquired whether I was the right person, but I knew that was Leo, the man from the letter of introduction I read at Susan's house a few days earlier. As premonitioned, Leo and I hit it off straight away. He wasted no time unfolding his ideology to me - all about self-sufficiency and anti-consumerism, intending to spend the rest of his life as a handyman / Wwoofer, living off trading his many craft skills, rather than participating in our capitalist society of pointless accumulation.

Leo had been a handyman his entire life and was indeed very handy, for the moment with a pair of pliers, busily plastering the cracked walls of our hosts' house, and in the planning stages of building a chicken run, weather conditions permitting. The hosts, Kathy and Gary, greeted me with warmth, promptly introducing me to the cat, Tashi, the three chooks and the two goats (on loan) and I was fed home baked scones with jam and yoghurt. My work here was to be mainly hardcore weeding, transplanting and yet more transplanting. It was great actually, I learned a fair bit about vegetable growing just from the few days I spent listening to Gary (also an American) talk about his carrots.

Gary and Kathy were specialist trekking guides in Nepal, and when not tending to the house or garden, were busy organising the next expedition to the Himalayas. They were full of anecdotes from their adventures: from scrotum dwelling ticks, to men-hating lesbian trekkers challenging a fellow trekker - a policeman - to a fight, and to drunken monks on donkeys making "fuck" gestures at a puzzled and bemused Gary and Kathy. They never did find out what that was about.


Being travel guides also meant that Kathy and Gary were generously encouraging that Leo and I see the local sights. One night, Kathy drove us all to see Short Tail Shearwaters, AKA mutton birds - the only source of food for the original settlers, still today scoffed with 
Nesting Mutton Birds
pleasure by old-timers, a practice not favoured by a wildlife champion such as Kathy. The bird were flying in from a few weeks spent over the ocean, so they can relieve their nesting partners from their shifts, the nests based in holes in the dunes. Here they would spend the night together, then allow the nesting partner to fly off for their turn of ocean feeding. We weren't allowed to shine any direct strong lights at them, so Kathy used green cellophane wrapped around a torch to dim it, and we stood on the shore, the smell of the ocean heavy, the stars high above us, watching low flying birds screeching all around like demented bats, causing sand to blow into our already squinty eyes. Then Gary got out the single malt and all was well.
 

Flocking Short Tail Shearwaters, AKA mutton birds
I had a little walk into town the next day and discovered sadly that its entire population was employed in some form of the tourist industry, a reality which was true for most small towns in the Southern hemisphere, I was to discover. Local industries have all but shrivelled dead. One woman here even turned her back garden into a native-rainforest mini museum - with entry fee of course, irritating her neighbours with the overgrown trees obscuring the sun and blocking the gutters, making it worse by tackily naming it The Magic Cottage. However, the town's main tourist attractions were the Gordon-Franklin river cruise, taking you through the untouched vast rainforests, the steam train journey previously mentioned - going to Queenstown and back, and a couple of sea-plane or helicopter rides. There was also a daily showing of The Ship That Never Was, a humorous audience participation play, depicting the story of the last ship built at Sarah Island, which was about to sail for the new prison at Port Arthur, and of the convicts who mutinied and hijacked it, escaping to Chile. Down by the Tourist Info Centre, every day at 5.30. Tickets at the door.
 


Over the next few days, Leo and I became exploration companions, with a shared passion for making the most of our free time visiting as many beauty spots. We had his trusty van, which was fortunate, as most attractions in the area were definitely a driving distance away.


Macquarie Heads

On a day off we drove to Macquarie Heads, a part of the coast with a view of Hell's Gates and a decent picnic spot to boot. It also is the start of a beach with some of the largest sand dunes and therefor THE hotspot for quad biking - both legal and illicit, as well as a reluctant graveyard for crashed vehicles. Ocean Beach, as this is known, stretches north 30k, all to way to Trial Harbour . Leo and I braved the giant dune greeting us by the parking area, getting extremely out of breath up the steep wall of sand, but it was worth it - the vast beach was spectacular, and we even managed to avoid getting run over by any of the zooming quadders and bikers.


View of Hell's Gates
Henty Dunes - white and green meeting
We then drove further down, to Henty Dunes - immense forests on one side, the crashing waves of the ocean on the other, endless white sand dunes in between. We got caught up in the emotion of the moment, melodramatically contemplating deliberately getting lost, wobbling our way towards the ocean, our feet sinking in the soft sand as we go, but the prevailing presence of noisy quad bikes allowed us to follow their tracks back to the parking area.





We then headed back to Strahan, and braved the unmissable-only-play-in-town, The Ship That Never Was - surprisingly not entirely torturous and quite fun, especially as you're given a spray bottle to go mad with during a certain bit in the show, getting all the other tourists in the audience wet in their nylon shirts.

Tourist spraying - it's a sport
We ended the day having dinner at a lovely fish shop. Ironically, the local fish were all exported, so the ones we enjoyed were brought in from Hobart - and here we were, sitting by the harbour, fishing boats everywhere.

Leo was shaping up to be a real boost to my enthusiasm for experiencing every moment to the full and becoming a yea-sayer. Even to naff, cheesy, touristy theatre productions, shelling my armour of cynicism, at least for the duration. His fervour was contagious, and he wanted to share it all with me. We reasoned that as lone Wwoofers, who don't normally get a chance to partner up as joyfully as we clearly have, we should take advantage of this unexpected duality and take the lavish - at least for us destitute types - Gordon-Franklin river cruise. And with that, the very next morning we wolfed down our quinoa porridge and jetted down to the harbour again, to catch our boat.
 



Monday, 15 August 2016

The Green Green Windowsill of Home

Plants are a mystery to me. Their needs and caprices, what it takes to make them blossom and bear fruit, how to rid them of pests and dangers, all an enigmatic world I've not been privy to. An urban child rarely gets a chance to see a plant through from seed to harvest. True, there are trees and bits of shrub which we either climb, crash our bikes into or scratch initials on. At school, we're taught the basics - soil, water, sun, compost = happy growth. Not so, apparently - there's infinitely more to it.

Once grown up and out of the parental home, and as a low-maintenance substitute to the unrealistic dream of a pooch, it was the next logical step for me to get hold of a cactus. They're easy to keep, I'd been told. Hardly any watering, a bit of sunshine and they'll flourish, never a thorn in your side (sorry). Apprehensive but confident I purchased a specimen, already potted and looking fairly healthy.

This is an ex-cactus
Alas, the poor creature survived as long as it could, it really did. I tried watering it, not watering it, putting it in direct and indirect sunlight, talking to it - feeling mighty strange doing it I can tell you, even singing on one occasion. Although, my UB40 obsessed neighbour who habitually got drunk, sobbing heartbreakingly and loudly singing along to their greatest hits on a loop, like only a jilted man could, seemed to have only served as a contributing counter-effect to my efforts. Perhaps my cactus preferred their earlier stuff, before they hit the commercial big-time. It was a forgone conclusion that the poor organism won't beat the odds of survival, and within a year it was wrinkled, papery and very much dead.
When your masculine heart's been broken only these guys really get it.
But your cactus won't.
From that experience I'd gleaned that my fingers are as far from green as can be, and from hereon in vehemently opposed any offer or suggestion of placing a plant in my care. I would allow flowers, but those buggers are doomed from the start anyway, aren't they.

Years passed, I watched friends cultivate whole gardens and allotments successfully and, ashamed and ill-equipped, avoided taking part in gardening-centric conversations. Living in a garden flat with several flatmates, they were the ones successfully growing tomatoes, squashes and greens, keeping the bushes plump and fragrant, making our lawn look rich and fluffy, and I could not take part, lest my condemning touch debunk their efforts.

Eventually, I became a tenant in a non-shared flat - oh the joy! It was a long and passionate honeymoon - coming home every day to MY space, I can't explain it but the sense of freedom it gave me, closing the door behind me and being myself uninhibited, uninterrupted, uncritiqued - it felt like an extra dose of tingly heavenly oxygen.

Would you accept a plant
from this man?
And with that, a sense of self that was never before undisturbed - discovering who I really was, at net value. I could experiment with aspects of myself, to ridiculous extremes, falter or fail, and never worry about how the result is perceived. So when the new upstairs neighbour gave me a 'hello' potted plant - species unknown - I was delighted. I was ready to try again. After all, I'd discovered so many talents I didn't know I had, my confidence in my abilities has altered completely. I can do it! I can keep this gift of friendship and nourish it!

The sweet but chaotic neighbour lasted only a year before his young, hot and trendy lifestyle, as well as the punishing London rents caught up with him, the plant lasted even less. This time, though, I felt stoic about it, rather than fatalistic. It wasn't the right match. And when my friends gave me a chilli plant for my birthday that year - I absolutely love all things spicy - I was determined to research, learn and make it work.

And suddenly it stuck. The little plant grew, seemingly hesitatingly at first, then I was startled to realise I would have to re-pot it, so big did it grow. Seeking advice, I gently removed it from its pot, roots and soil quivering loose, placed it in a bigger pot with some fresh earth at the bottom, then added more at the top and watered it, narrating what I was doing out loud all the while, to keep it calm. Then waited with a breath that is bated for the consequences of my deed.

An experimental tentative collaborative effort. A chilli-human co-op, if you will
Soon after, the sun came out with summertime, and my little chilli plant, rather than wilting, flowered with small white blossoms. They came and went, and I saw no fruit. My friends enlightened me by explaining I essentially need to pollinate the flowers myself, as it being an indoor plant, no insects will be around to do the dirty, dirty work. 'Huh', I said, 'so I need to... get sexual with it'. 'Basically, yes', they confirmed. I used a cotton bud to dab pollen from one flower onto the others, feeling a little wrong. But, the moment of perverse conduct paid off, as within a few days, as the flowers began covering the pot terrain with their browning remains, little protuberances became visible, gradually growing into a real boy er... I mean chillies.

The plant was transplanted three times in total - the second into an actual home - my current flat - owned and therefore mine to decorate, embellish, make an extension of myself. I had two fantasies as soon as I saw it - I saw a dining room table exactly where I would want to sit and look out through the window every morning, as I have my breakfast, and I saw a herb garden on the east-facing windowsill in the kitchen.  Soon after, both fantasies were made a reality. Gleefully and confidently I purchased some seeds, soil, and pots, and that very evening had a potential herbarium, seeds nestled in the earth, awaiting the light streaming through the window to provide the energy to grow. Within a month, my window looked encouragingly alive. Within 6 weeks, my gastronomic creations were becoming distinctly more aromatic, to a deeply satisfying degree.


A promising start
A nervous Fittonia
Echeveria Succulent
At the housewarming later that year, friends brought several plants, showing - in my opinion misguided - trust and confidence in my ability to keep these things alive by exercising what can only be described as *gulp* maternal instincts. Right, I thought, I'd better step up to the challenge and take actual responsibility in caring for them. T'internet, after all, is a wonderful source of knowledge, tricks of trade and dummy guides. I was given a succulent, which is a type of cactus, an orchid don't-you-know which frightened me, a beautiful white-veined Fittonia - also called a nerve houseplant, and another chilli plant. By now, having harvested many-a-chilli, as well as the occasional batch of parsley or basil from my indoor garden, I had learned that there is an element of a metaphysical art form to making these things flourish, a sense rather than a science. Each one has its own maintenance requirements, and the margin of error is not negligible. But if you read up, keep vigilant and listen to your gut instinct, it's possible to do good by them. My orchid loves the bathroom, with its humid misty air and filtered sunlight, the fleshier succulent Echeveria is ok right on the sill with minimal maintenace, the fluffy Fittonia seems to thrive in the living room away from direct sunlight, and notifies me whenever it needs a watering, by drooping all its leaves, then perking up like a miracle of being once satiated.

I wish I could say there is a happy ending to the story of my first chilli. Fickle it is, nature. Fickle and stony-hearted. My beautiful, mature, fertile and hardy chilli plant developed a stubborn plague of fungus gnats, lifting into a cloud of dark dots each time I approached the area, followed by a cacophony of my ill-targeted claps designed to destroy the stormtrooper-like critters. After cursory research, I decided to re-pot it. My ill-conceived yet well-meaning plan exposed the noviciate of my abilities - the plant was just in full, lush bloom, all green bright leaves and white flowers, with several tiny chillies already hatched like spearheads with a secret punch. This, as it turns out, is the wrong time to disturb or challenge an organism. When all its resources are directed at its offspring: water, sunlight, food - the whole ecosystem dedicated to inflating and stretching these little pods, green and shiny and protruding, that's when it's best to leave well alone.

But in my haste to come to its rescue, I proceeded as at the previous successful re-potting - gently scraping off the topsoil infected with larvae, turning the pot upside down and, careful as a newly ordained yogi on a bed of nails, tapping the plant out, roots and all. I brushed some of the earth from the roots, then re-planted it into a pot partially filled with fresh soil, and covered the top. I watered it a little and waited.

Within an HOUR the leaves were distinctly droopy, the baby chillies almost invisible, the flowers wilting. A quick internet search revealed that a re-potting of a chilli plant will produce a "root shock" especially if the thinnest ends of the roots are hurt in the process. They can recover if not too many have been damaged, and if the plant is left alone for a while, in indirect sunlight, without too much water other than misting the leaves. And cut all the fruit buds, exclaimed the advice at me from the monitor, as they will be the ones sucking vital energy and making recovery process harder. I would have to say goodbye to the infant chillies!

You monsters! You blew it up! Damn you, damn you all to hell!
Who knew that this loyal and resilient plant was so fragile? It survived a re-potting before, a house move, a few winters. I thought I was saving it from the pestilence of gnats. But all that's left is a shell...

RIP?

Reluctantly cutting my losses, all that's left to do is wait. Hope for a rejuvenation. Chances are looking slim for chilli plant. However... over to the left, the new plant, amongst the purple blossom - what's this...?
Hmm this one's shot up!

Fruit! A living, dark purple, Royal Black chilli, quietly stretching out of its crown of petals cocoon. Life!

It's alive!!
My approach now is to take what I can get, be consistent, revel in results, and cut the losses. This relationship teaches awareness, responsibility, detachment, loss, resilience of nature, fragility of nature, trusting your instincts... a microcosm on my windowsill.

The gang