My blog’s 1st birthday

Hard to believe that I have been blogging for a year.  It has not been easy…learning a new craft and I have to say I have not been the best student but I have a great teacher who sometimes must think it would be easier to teach a class of year 3 students.  But I bribe her with her favourites ….anzac biscuits or cakes and even my dog biscuits for her puppies.  All homemade of course!

If I was asked to describe what my blog was about or what I had wanted to achieve was a food and travel one.  Not a unique idea but I feel that I have been able to achieve these goals.  Food of course …what I bake or what I eat when I eat out, and travel.  I have been fortunate in travelling to Croatia and the Balkan States earlier in the year and more recently to Florida or more  specifically to St Augustine for the wedding of one of my sons and then a food trip to Mexico.  There have been some day trips with a visiting son to the Silo Arts Area in Victoria  and many more with my greyhound, SusieQ a rescue and retired very successful animal who loves car trips fortunately.

From time to time one finds a magazine from a supermarket with details of what someone might have in their trolley.  I thought I would do the same though I am a big fan of local food markets where I purchase as much as I can to support these hard working stall owners.  These include soudough bread, freshly ground peanut butter and honey, free range eggs…..usually two dozen! walnuts and pistachios, cheese and unusual vegetables….coloured carrots, purple cauliflower, field mushrooms, fresh strawberries and rasberries and locally grown pears and apples.  Potatoes in season..yes I love mashed potatoes!  The supermarket trolley picks up the rest with baking items – several types of sugar and flour, dried fruits, chocolate, vanilla.  There is unsalted butter and Greek yoghourt and cans of tomatoes, chick peas, tuna, sardines and frozen peas…always a packet of frozen peas.

Is there anything I can’t cook….well many things but what comes to mind is jasmine rice and the family roast.  It is always a treat to be invited to a home where roast with a pile of different vegetables and gravy.  I only use basmati or brown rice I am afraid.  What else?

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Cookbooks again or my cookbook addiction continues….

Recently I volunteered at the Bendigo Writers Festival as a way of becoming better acquainted in the area where I moved to two years ago.  Whilst waiting for a session I was approached by a woman who turned out to be a reporter from the local ABC.  She asked me if she could interview me to ask me why I was volunteering.

We had a lovely chat including my cook book collection and I told her I think I had over a hundred cook books but it wasn’t until I came home and thought I would do a quick count of my cook books and realised I had hopelessly miscalculated my collection.  So when does a collection become an addiction.

I am one of those people who tells family and friends that I don’t want anything for Christmas.  Afterall I buy my own books and wrap them up and put them under the tree and delight in opening them on Christmas morning thrilled that I had received just what I wanted.  I refuse to actually to look at them before I wrap them so it is a lovely surprise.  It was a relief to confess this to a friend recently and she said she did the same thing.  So I am not just a crazy book nerd or in my case a cook book nerd.

So when people ask me who is my favourite chef or cook book author I find it impossible to answer.  It depends on the week and what I am cooking and the season of course.  I am a serious cake or sweet maker and have made many of the recipes from SWEET a fairly recent addition to my library.  It is a collabration between Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh.  I admire Helen’s attention to details and the addition of ingredients which I would not normally would think of to add flavour to cakes or biscuits.  Ingredients like halva and tahini added to brownies for instance, her rhubarb and strawberry crumble cake is perfect for breakfast or take to a picnic.  Then there is basil added to yoghurt panna cotta and kaffir lime leaf added to posset.  Helen also provides a recipe each weekend in a newspaper which is also interesting.  There is anise added to a walnut and honey bar; tahini, chocolate and orange in a cookie.  Who would have thought to add ras-el-hanout to a tea loaf?  I think you get the picture!  When asked which is my favourite?  It is like asking who is your favourite child?  I love her bundt cakes but maybe her lemon and rose petal chiffon cake with white chocolate cream is a dream! and love the lemon and blueberry loaf cake.  Always such great combination.  My own personal favourite is rosemary and quince especially as they both grow in my own garden.

Helen spent her early years in Malaysia and is married to a Jewish Australian and they live in London with two adorable sons.  She trained as a pastry chef and worked with Yotam Ottolenghi who has many Middle Eastern  cook books and restaurants in London.  They are on my places to go to list but in the meantime I am hoping there will be a SWEET2 in the not too distant future.  But I am still happy for her weekly recipe in The Age.  I also love cooking magazines too and think that in Australia we have some excellent ones.  I am sure I have most of Donna Hay’s 100 and ‘delicious’ is also great to read on the train or a cafe.  Of course I am always happy to google recipes.  Recently I was gifted a tin of chai as I don’t actually drink it have been using it in a chai tea cake, added some to a shortbread recipe and have plans to use some for yo-yo biscuits which is I will sandwich toether with a ginger buttercream.

‘Simple’ is another favourite too.  Yotam Ottolenghi is one of my all time favourites.  These books are from Middle East culture and history.  Asked which of his I like the best…impossible.  Love them all.  The Middle East is definitely on a bucket list for places to visit.  Maybe next year.

However there is a bible too and it is Stephanie Alexander ‘the cook’s companion’ which I like to refer to when I am in doubt about something.  Everything from tomato chutney to cabbage leaves stuffed with pork to dill pickles with advice on storage and selection. This is a total labour of love.  I gave a copy of this to my daughter in law to be.

Another favourite is ‘Special Delivery’ with Annabel Crabb and Wendy Sharp (and their lastest is destined for Christmas delivery ‘Special Guest’.  I like Rick Stein and Nigella’s writing and recipes are always a joy to read and their television programmes.

Others destined for Christmas include ‘Turkish delights’ by John Gregory-Smith (I have his Orange Blossom and Honey book  of Moroccan recipes), ‘Flour and Stone’ by Nadine Ingram a Sydney based pasty chef with a popular shop in Sydney, and ‘The Little Swedish Kitchen’ by Rachel Khoo.  There is a new one  to me cookbook too that I have on my wish list too. ‘OSTRO’ by Julia Busutti Nishimura from Melbourne via Malta I understand.  I have just started following her on Instagram and love her dishes.

But a constant joy is the blog by Lorraine Elliott who is a Sydney based blogger who puts up a new restaurant review or recipe or reflection on a plane journey (usually in business class I have to say) each day.  I have been following Lorraine aka Not Quite Nigella for such a long time she seems like a friend.  We hear about her husband and parents and of course her cute little puppy.  I am a big fan of her cakes who which all have an appropriate name.

What is destined to be found under your Christmas tree this year?

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Tutes Cottage and Garden

Having a retired and rescue greyhound pushes me out the door before I really feel ready for her twice daily walk.  This is great for my health and wellness of course but unless I vary the walks it does become a tad boring.  For me anyway!  I particularly love seeing the little old miners cottages of the early gold mining era and wish they could talk as I am sure they have a tale to tell.

One of these cottages which has survived is Tutes Cottage and Garden.  I wondered if anyone still lived in it as it looked uninhabited but the garden was very healthy and the quince tree was covered with beautiful blossoms.  Passing the cottage one afternoon I asked a neighbour about the house and garden and he was happy to oblige me with details of the history of the establishment.

Tutes Cottage and Garden was named after James Tute who purchsed the cottage in 1903 though it was built in 1858.  Gold has been discovered in the Castlemaine area in 1851 and people flocked to try their luck.  James lived in the cottage till 1939 and was then passed onto his wife until 1973 when she passed away.

However the first portion of the stone and timber cottage was built for or by a miner from Ireland named John Hannan.  His wife gave birth to six children in this house. The house is a five room cottage with a weatherboard kitchen, bathroom and laundry.  Hannan built this cottage in rich gold bearing ground called Ten Foot Hill where rich pockets of gold were found at a depth of ten feet.

Tutes Cottage and Garden is a rare artefact of the Victorian gold rush and is now part of the Mount Diggings Project.  It  is to be used to develop tourism package linking the property to other heritage places in the area.  These include the Castlemaine Art Gallery and Museum as well as Buda Historic Home and Garden and remains of the Chinese Market Garden.

Stop by and take a look at the house and garden and try and imagine what life must have been like over 150 years ago.  If only those walls could talk….what stories they could tell.

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Mexico…. continued

So you may think this trip is about the food and this is true.  It is a food trip though we have a healthy serving of history and culture too.  I was amazed at the profilic art everywhere and the beautiful churches and old buildings many of which have suffered at the hands of earthquakes through the country.  Actually I had a fairly sleepless night early in my visit to Mexico City when I was warned about a siren which if one heard it during the night it was a warning that an earthquake was imminent…..especially when my room was on the 12th floor.  ‘Dont worry’….said my friend ‘Just go and lie in the bath or go to the stairs’!  Fortunately this wasn’t necessary though I was relieved that hotels after that were on the ground floor.

Just 30 minutes outside of Oaxaca there is a town called Tlacolula and where we were headed to their market for breakfast.  Tlacolula is one of the oldest markets in Mesoamerica and it was an opportunity to witness the ancient Zapotec culture of dress, culture, language and cuisine. Firstly we were served with a gorgeous bowl of some of the best hot chocolate with two types of a cross between a cake and bread for dipping.  Delicious and generous! This was followed by a flavoursome broth made with meat and vegetables to which we added finely chopped lettuce and radish and naturally salsas of varying degrees of heat.  Meat – either goat or lamb was passed around to add to the broth.  Warm tortillas were a lovely addition to scoop with the meat and veggies.  Maybe the best breakfast ever and convinced that we would not need to eat again that day.

Perhaps I should add that there was a vegetarian on our trip whom I felt missed out on many of the dishes we enjoyed.  For her perhaps it was more restricting too as she did not eat eggs which were especially popular as a breakfast food with spicy salsas.  Restaurants did of course have vegetarian options.  I recall a previous trip to Mexico with a few vegetarians whose diet seemed to revolve around mushrooms and cheese.  However cactus seems much more available now.  And Intrepid Travel with whom I mostly travel have introduced vegan trips now to Italy, India and Thailand which I am sure will prove very popular and my hat goes off to tem for introducing these trips.

A trip to Mexico perhaps is not complete without a Mescal tasting.  Most visitors to Mexico are familiar with tequila but mescal is fast becoming as popular.  Of course beer is very popular and margaritas too.  Mescal is made from any type of agave …a type of cacti which is grown commerically in Mexico but mostly in Oaxaca and the heart of the it is used in the production. And yes I bought a bottle to bring home to add to the pottery, packets of Mexican chocolate, the two pairs of nikes bought in Florida.  My mescal has a worm in it too.  Though it hasn’t been proven that the added worm adds flavour to the mescal it does add to the conversation!  Maybe it will be drunk at Christmas though it is traditionally drunk straight up and not in a cocktail.

The thought of an overnight bus travel puts the fear of God in some but Australians often have to take flights much much longer to get to most of the rest of the world.  Our bus is much more comfortable than sitting in an economy seat in a long haul flight and there is a bathroom and a movie too.  There is airconditioning too.

So we were off for a few days of rest and relaxation and the tiny town of Mazunte was to be our home.  It is a surf beach and we had hoped for an early morning fishing expedition to spot turtles or even dolphins and maybe catch some fish for our lunch to make some ceviche.  But the weather prevented that so a visit to an aquarium was a great substitute.  Lots of turtles big and small were extremely adorable though trying to photo them was not so easy.

Our accommodation was in an eco- hotel with a very inviting swimming pool and hammocks.  And our guide proved that he was not only a wealth of knowledge of Mexico he was an amazing chef with our final lunch being some guacamole (if only lime and avocados were available so economically in Australia), two types of ceviche (one with fish and the other a really delicious vegetarian one), Mexican rice and salsas with tortillas.  And some beer of course.

We flew from the local airport to Mexico City where our trip concluded.  Some went on for another trip, some went back to their jobs in Europe and I with difficulty found my way to the Aero Mexico terminal to check in my luggage for my homeward journey.  Airports don’t bring me much joy…a necessary evil with immigration, security after checking luggage in and trying to find the departure gate though I was questioned at length about what I was doing in Mexico and where I stayed and what I had done.  I am sure they thought my pottery plates contained illicit drugs hidden under the newspaper wrapped articles especially as they also were protected with bubble wrap.  From there it was Los Angeles airport and collecting my backpack to be checked in again though I was advised in Mexico City that it was checked all the way to Melbourne where I could collect it.  But no Customs would be in Sydney and then a missed flight to Melbourne as our plane could not land there.  Confused!  Me too!

But that was a week ago now and I am enjoying the spring weather, the clean air and being happy back home and over jet lag but with a brochure inspecting possible trips for 2019.

Adios ….

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Mexico

‘You are going to Mexico City..on your own’ they said.  ‘Stay safe’!  I pondered this on the way from the airport to my hotel after a few days in squeaky clean Orlando – Disney heaven to lots of fans – cheap food outlets breeding everywhere,  the freeways choked with vehicles (rentals I was told by my son).  It was clean and orderly.  Approached at traffic lights by homeless or beggars, well worn vehicles, broken footpaths (possibly as a result of  irregular earthquates), neglected buildings and somewhat crazy drivers.

Mexico City has a popularion of eight million which is Sydney and Melbourne combined and is huge but it has a total of twentytwo million in the sururban area.  My hotel is centrally located and it is the starting point of my Intrepid Food Tour of Mexico.  We spend a few days here and then head south.

I arrived a day early to acquaint myself with the area and take a hop on /hop off bus  and wander around..albeit it in the daytime.  I came across a delightful market selling the most extraordinary antiques in a street next to the hotel.  Little did I know that Mexico City has the second highest numbers of museums after London.  Galleries are profilic and of course the legendary art couple Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s house is a popular attraction for locals and international visitors alike.  Diego Rivera was a very profilic artist and his murals on display at the National Palace were awe inspiring.

Our group meets up and we head out for what was to be a ‘taco crawl’ but it was really a night at a taqueria where we sampled different types of tacos.  The tacos are soft, warm, freshly made and small.  Very different to ours in Australia which of course come packaged from the supermarket.  I chose three different fillings, a spicy pork, a beef and out of curiosity one made of cactus which was served with a melted cheese not unlike a mozzarella.  There were several salsas to add. The choices were up to you depending on your preference of flavour.  Our guide said it is all about the salsa and the taquerias reputation for the flavours.  Beers were on offer and juices including gauva which I enjoyed.

Another day in Mexico City with various options and we were headed for Pueblo a two hour trip by public bus.  Pueblo has a reputation for wonderful food and its cuisine is a mixture of pre-hispanic and Spanish influenced fare including mole pobano, cemites (a type of crusty sandwich) and chiles en nogada which was a dish which incorporated meats and fruits with a white sauce and decorated with parsley and pomegranate seeds.  It reminded me of a dish one might have at Christmas!  Another attraction was ‘Sweet Street’ to sample camotes (these were yam flavoured sweets with fruits)  I found them very sweet and perhaps could have been enjoyed on a cheese platter…similiar to a quince paste.  My favourite was a shortbread biscuit with a pumpkin seed glaze.

Strangely what I enjoyed most in Pueblo and it is almost embarrassing to admit this was the Luche Libre show.  For those unfamiliar with this ‘entertainment’  it is a spot combining wrestling and theatre.  It was fun and the crowds really became involved with their favourite athletics.  You may have seen it on a sports programe on television or not!  More likely if you have a family of sports minded sons or husbands. Unfortunately we did not have sufficient time to visit the 43,000 book library

A five hour bus trip from Pueblo to Oaxaca was increased by a road block and sent us off on minor, bumpy roads throuh small villages which added to the interest of the journey.

Oaxaca is one of my favourite cities in Mexico and our hotel was once again centrally located and we were aroud the corner from a wonderful walking street with quirly galleries – both ceramic and art and book stores and coffee shops.  Did I mention a bakery too with such an array of pastries and rolls.  I purchased some pottery plates which I adore but carrying them around wrapped in newspapers an bubble wrap was not the wisest decision. But they arrived home safely as hand luggage for the four return flights albeit after being held up in immigration from Mexico to the US perhaps thinking I actually had a stash of something illegal hidden there.  Speaking of souvenirs I found some colourful little hand painted animals which I found irrestibleable and fortunately a lot easier to carry than ceramics.

Tourism is a major generator of finance in Oaxaca with the city centre included in a World Heritage Site designated by UNESCO in recognition of its treasures of historic buildings and monuments.

We also had the priviledge of our one and only cooking classes in Oaxaca.  But first things first.  Breakfast!  This consisted of hot chocolate  and timbales – some wrapped in a corn husk and some in banana leaves.  Then onto the market where we sampled cactus fruit, grasshoppers and a delicious Oaxacan cheese.  Back to prepare lunch which consisted of moles – a traditional sauce with complex ingredients and usually with a protein and some fresh warm tortillas.  The mole sauces had as many as twenty ingredients….tomatoes, chillies, cinnamon, garlic, onions, peanuts, raisins and even chocolate.  We made out own tortillas, avocado icecream….the best, a soup with zucchini flowers and vegetables and four salsas ….one with insects.  It was delicious

Perhaps my favourite meal in Mexico was at a rooftop restaurant close to out hotel.  I wasn’t terribly hungry but the restaurant was recommended to us by our guide and a few of my fellow travellers were keen.  I decided just to order a salad of tomato and goats cheese and followed it with a black bean soup.  Simple flavours with delicious.  Salsas were made at the table and we used tortillas to dip in the flavoursome dip.  With no thoughts of ending the meal with a dessert I made the mistake of looking at the menu.  Guava tart with rosepetal icecream was the best dessert I have had in Mexico.  My friends were equally impreseed with their food, the professional service and maybe a margarita or beer.

Ironically it was that afternoon that I passed the restuarant that afternoon and was surprised ..no shocked to see a police car with uniformed men carrying AK47 which was only after earlier that day in a tourist street coming across the military with two young soldiers in the back of a van carrying machine guns.  I was shocked though one of my friends said it was a regular site when she spent three months travelling through South America.

I will continue my travels through Mexico soon…..

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Memorial Presbyterian Church – St Augustine

When I started my blog I had clear intentions as to what I was going to write about for more importantly not write about.  There was religion and politics and sex, drugs and rock n roll. And family.  It was to be about food and travel and moving from Sydney to a country town outside Melbourne about 1000 km away.  Mostly I have stuck to that.

But then there was a marriage proposal between one of my sons and his long term American girlfriend and a wedding on the horizon.  And if you read my previous few blogs I have written about the town where they decided to marry ….half way around the world for us.  Australia to Florida doesnt get a whole lot further apart.

The church they decided to marry in does not look like one you might expect in Florida.  But then St Augustine is not like the rest of Florida either with its Spanish architecture, influence and history.

Henry Morrison Flagler built this church in memory of his daughter Jennie Louise Flagler Benedict who passed away in childbirth together with her baby daughter in 1889.  She is entombed here together with Flagler himself and his first wife.

Henry became an extremely wealthy man as he was a founding partner of the Standard Oil Trust with John D Rockefeller.  The local collage is named after him and he built several stunning hotels in the down town historical area.  He was also instrumental in the eveloping the railways in Florida.

The dome of the church rises 30 metres (100 feet) and encompasses several religious  symbols including Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as are the crown of thorns, the Trinity and the Hewbrew written letters for God.

The architects were inspired by St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, Italy and are of the Venetian Renaissance style which is reflected in the arches and dome.  The small tiles in the floor are Italian marble and some are patterned mosaics similiar to those in St Marks.

The beautiful stained glass windows were installed in 1902 and were designed by Herman Schladermundt.

The Eagle Lecturn is handcarved from the same mahogany found throughout th church with the baptism front is carved from a solid pieces of marble.  A solid piece of mahogony above the pulpit acts as a ‘sound amplifter’.

The pipe organ provides beautiful music and is an expectional instrument.

The chuch will always have a significent memory in the lives of Nick and Jenn and all of us and is described as one of the religious wonders  of the US and one of the most beauiful Protestant churches in the world.  I feel honoured to be part of this amazing history.

And I wish Nick and Jenn a happy healthy and wonderful life together.  It is the least they deserve.

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St Augustine, Florida

I won’t lie!  It is a long way and an even longer flight in the rear end of a plane where you have a screaming child being allowed to run wild.  We have all had these experiences.  Melbourne to Los Angeles to Atlanta to Jackonsville and an hours drive to America’s first town.

If you haven’t heard about St Augustine you are not alone.  I had to google it to see where it was but I had spoken to friends and was surprised that a few had been there and loved it.  It dates back to 1513 when Ponce de Leon claimed Florida for Spain as explorers were looking for gold and silver in Mexico and Peru to send back to Spain. Pedro Menendez then arrived in 1565 with 700 soldiers and colonists being sent by King Philip 11 of Spain to found St Augustine. This makes it the oldest continually occupied European settlement in North America.  And Spanish influences are still in existence together with street and bridge names.  I should add it has one of the most attractive historical areas in North America.

However the British took over the area for twenty years from 1784 and destroyed the village and fort which was later rebuilt in stone instead of timber. The fort was built of coquina a locally quarried soft shellrock which proved to be resistant to cannon fire.  The new fort took 23 years to complete and is still in evidence today.

One can’t go far in St Augustine today without seeing the name of Flagler.  Henry M Flagler was the co-founder of the Standard Oil Company and an industrialist and visited the area in 1883 during the winter to escape the northern winter temperatures.  He was impressed with the possibilities of the area and made a major impact of the architecture and economy of the area. He was also a very wealthy man.  The local collage is named after him together with the Hotel Ponce de Leon and Hotel Alcazar as well as the Memorial Presbyterian Church.

This brings us to why we are in St Augustine.  My son Nick and his fiancee Jenn as she was then decided that they wanted to marry in this beautiful church.  Henry Flagler built this church as a memorial to his daughter Jennie who passes away as a result of childbirth together with her daughter in 1889.  I will blog about the church at a later date.  Unfortunately the Dome which rises 30 meters above the church was severely damaged in recent hurricanes and was covered in scaffolding at the time of the wedding but the church is still magnificent.

We chose an Airbnb in the historical area to accommodate family from Australia for a week and it was perfect.  Not only could we walk everywhere it was close enough to us even to walk to the wedding.  I became smitten with the homes in the area.  Ours was a hundred years and prefect with four bedrooms and two baths with extra dining, cooking and living areas.  There was history on every street and walking about with a camera was a joy.

St  Augustine is reported to have over five million visitors a year.  Whilst we enjoyed our time in the historical area, my son in laws to-be chose to stay near the beaches which have lovely white sand.

We were thrilled to find great coffee too as an American/Aussie has opened four coffee outlets dispensing quality coffee.  So if you are in the area and you see a Kookaburra logo advertising coffee you are in for a treat.  We only had coffee but there were meat pies available.  Pizza lovers were thrilled too to find a pizza outlet (eat in or take away)  which advertises itself as the second best pizza joint in the whole of the USA.  Another one of my favourites was the Prohobition Kitchen with excellent food, and a list of 34 draught beers.  Maple Street Biscuit Company was a popular spot for college students too serving local biscuits and grits though we tried the biscuits (described as a cross between a flaky scone and croissant) with deep fried chicken, wood smoked bacon and sausage gravy or apple butter.  I even found a cute little cupcake shop serving their cakes from one of those lovely homes.

I don’t know if I will be back but I am sure the young married couple will have it on their bucket list to return to for a wedding anniversary as they will have wonderful memories of their special day in the gorgeous St Augustine.  Hopefully the scaffolding will be gone by then!

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