Life is a Journey

A Train Journey Backwards in Time..

Sitting on the train that no longer finished it’s journey at Port Fairy like it had done when I lived there, it was time to ponder the journeys that life had offered and those I had accepted. The thought that the young don’t care about yesterday, only about tomorrow and the older, and I thought more wise, thought about the effects of yesterday on tomorrow. But did they look back with regret? Maybe, but then perhaps that was what was wrong about looking backwards, examining the past and seeing the impact it had been on your own life. Could it have been that the young have a very short yesterday and a much longer tomorrow, that could be the key.

As the train passed through Colac station, it was hard not to remember the times when as a family we would go to Melbourne to stay for a week or so with this relative or that and my father would look forward to this station because they had a good canteen and sold cups of tea, great meat pies and sandwiches and you could get off the train and stop the movement for a while, how he always played the same game and how I always fell for it. We all got off and headed for the canteen, Mum would order tea for us all, not in take away cups but in the thick creamy white railway cups on heavy saucers, then depending on how hungry we were, a pie for Dad, hot buttered toast for me and a sandwich for her which she never finished and always brought back into the train wrapped in a paper serviette. Dad was always the first finished and curiosity, one of his consuming passions would take over and he would leave Mum and I to wander on the station and disappear. As the panic of missing the train arose in me, I would be overcome with the desire to board the train and get seated again. Dad would be missing, the bell would ring signaling the imminent departure of the train and still no Dad. The train would pull out from the station, by which time I would be catatonic and Mum quite calm since she had seen it all before, a mile or so from the town, just after the train would enter the first of the longer tunnels, Dad would sneak back to his seat and be there as the train emerged into the light. It was the same trick every single time and every single time I fell for it. The canteen was closed now, no longer any cups of steaming sweet tea and no ham sandwiches or hot toast and the train barely paused, just long enough to drop off or collect a passenger or two.

Maybe the train was a way of looking at the past, it was clear that the train was held in very low esteem by today’s people, in the past it was one of the lifelines that had kept the country together as it snaked its way across the country side stopping at every small town and even some stations where no town even existed. In the time before ordinary people could afford a car, the train was the only method of getting about, that and a bus service that linked towns where no train existed. Now it was well gone, so many changes that it made the memories of train journeys taken as a child seem like something that had happened before the dawn of history. Did I regret that? Really, apart from memory it had little effect on me, I was on this train because I was returning to Port Fairy to write. In ordinary circumstances I would have driven like most of the population, on roads that often missed the towns that were part of both railway and highway in the past.

But then it somehow seems to be necessary to look at where I am now and what things mean to me. One thing stands out like some beacon… much of my life has been motivated by food, in fact major points in my life that stand out all swing around food, food in Australia and food in other countries. Food that was part all the big events in my life, births deaths, weddings, balls, debutant and others. The women in the country who made blow away sponges that blew me away. The roast meats in country hotels, the fish cooked by fishermen on the beaches of Vietnam, the women in the market in Hoi An who made pancakes out of rice flour and special well water, wrapped them around some tiny prawns and pieces of pork, tossed in some bean shoots and passed them over for you to dip into some of that delicious dipping sauce renowned in Vietnam. The cooking of the Sikhs in the hinterland of the Himalayas as I travelled from Dharamsala to DheraDun. The smell of the food cooking in the Mountain Kingdom of Nepal, a mix of wood smoke and the heady aromatics of herbs and spices. The amazing food of India, from the food vendors in the streets of Bombay (Mumbai), to the fish cooking of the Southern Indians, the vegetarian food of the humble Hindus. So much to recall, so much memory.

Italy was a short trip, three or four weeks in Tuscany, but the food. The first night in a restaurant called La Fattoria where the local choir was practising and in the practical no nonsense way of the Tuscans, was enjoying the cooks efforts, a fabulous Hare sauce with wide hand made pasta called papadelli. And the coffee in Italy, what a revelation. So many influences.

The memories began weaving around me as I sat and remembered on that trip. I had become quite dogmatic in my attitudes now, fixed ideas, fixed concepts, angry that the young seemed not to understand in the way I did. Sad that what I saw as the best quality of food was missing in today’s world, the tomatoes tasting bland, the potatoes not rich and full, the beef lacking some flavour. Stories that I heard of growers injecting the soil with onion oil to raise the taste profile of onions. A world that had become obsessed with cleanliness and disease, a world where people had allowed themselves to become removed from their food source a place when people could eat meat, but not under any circumstances see the blood.

Was I too angry, too obsessed about the now world that I had my eyes closed and was not seeing properly. Maybe I had just looked back one too many times and had become convinced that what I saw in those times in my past, some how had grown in stature and importance, become blown out of proportion. Now was the time to look at that, take a hike down the highways and byways of my time and look freshly. That’s what this journey was, a train going backwards, but looking forward too with hope.

I came from a family that was almost diametrically opposite in styles, on Dads side it was the butchers and the stories that my Pop (Grandfather) told of his families struggles in settling into this country after they had come here from Ireland. Mind you it’s fair to say that a lot of Pop’s stories were somewhat lacking in true fact, even exaggerated but for all that, delicious. Poppy claimed that he had, with his father and mother made the long slow trip over land from Melbourne and had settled on a farm somewhere between Warrnambool and Hamilton, this was one thing we were able to establish as true. Most of the rest involving hazardous sea journeys, being preyed on by bands of thieves had been made up, even the walking from Melbourne was not true, they had a horse and cart and traveled on the Princess Highway (well it was later to become this highway, in those days it was just a track that joined the settlements). Pop always claimed to be a loyal Orangeman, this indicated he was from the North of Ireland and a Protestant. His family may well have come from that country, but as to be loyal to anything it was not Pops nature and as to being religious, he rather trusted his instinct.

Pop fathered seven children, four boys and three girls, Grandma died when my father was sixteen leaving a family to be taken care of by the three girls. The long and the short of it was that the family survived, Pop married again, a woman called Pearl White from Melbourne, but that is altogether another story. Of all the women in the household, she was the one that I adored, her influence with me was enormous. Thats not to under rate my father’s sisters, they were amazing women in their own rights, a set of twins, May and Gladys and a sister Alma. Of the three, Gladys and Alma had all the strengths while May was girlie and pretty and married for money. Mind you of all of them in the kitchen, pretty Auntie May was a way better cook.

Mum’s family were from Mount Gambier and a mix of snobbery and down right damn it all. Mums family were much more fun, full of life and love than Dad’s, they took life full frontal and bathed in the heady excesses that occasionally came their way. Mum had four sisters and two brothers. Her four sisters were constants in my life up until I was in my mid twenties, one brother was a very frequent visitor, his quiet demeanor and manner was always charming. Counter that with Mums sisters joyous approach to life and all that it had to offer and you will see why I think they had the most influence in my life.
Auntie Mon, Mona Mary, was my hero, she was a full busted woman who every single day of her life, strapped herself into a whalebone corset which had the effect of giving her a fullsome, but controlled waist line, unfortunately the upward thrust of the corset made her bust line that much more prominent and also caused her hips to spread, to say an hour glass figure was an understatement. She was married to a local baker called Brick, (sorry no explanation on that one) who was quite gifted and managed to turn out some of the towns finer offerings, I still recall with almost evil satisfaction, his sugar buns that rumour had it, were a recipe stolen from a visiting Swedish cook and then made his own by Uncle Brick.

Mum and Mona Mary outside her Mt Gambia house

Mona Mary and Brick lived in a Mount Gambier Stone house which backed onto the gasometer. The back garden was a sea of fruit trees and vegetables in the times when it wasn’t just the Italians and Greeks who grew home produce, in fact my Father was justly proud of his own back garden with its chooks, bantams, many fruit trees and neatly set out vegetable beds. I think Dad’s garden was designed for a balance between feeding the family and preserving, Mona Mary’s on the other hand was much more about preserves and provided a constant flow of produce to be made into jam, chutney, sauces and bottled for winter use. Her stove was an old upright wood stove which was kept going twenty four hours a day and never seemed to be without a pot of some kind cooking something.

And the journey of memory, taste and sense had begun, a train trip back in time, back maybe to meet myself, see what has happened since I left, see again what was happening when I was there. In the end, it becomes a deeply personal thing, a moment when I can evoke changes in me. And maybe, just maybe begin to understand my journey.

The journey through food has always been the most important, I cant even remember where I learned all this stuff, maybe Mrs Emms, maybe Mrs Miller, maybe Mum, maybe Auntie Pearl, maybe Auntie Nell… they all talked while they cooked and I just remember. I hope it helps.

*Serve two soups in the same bowl, they should be the same consistency and have tastes that will work together, simply pour each soup into opposite sides of the bowl at the same time.
*Use interesting garnishes for soups, croutons, thinly sliced fresh vegetables, edible flowers.
*Add more fresh herbs to a soup just before serving, herbs loose their flavour when they are cooking.
*Don’t compromise on quality of ingredients used in soup, the taste will tell.
*Sauté the vegetables in a little butter or oil before adding them to the stock, it will help release their flavours.
*If you have to thicken soup in a hurry, use rice flour, just pour some in and whisk, it won’t go into lumps.
*When serving cold soups, be careful of the seasoning, tastes change when cold, if adding salt to a cold soup allow a few seconds for the salt to dissolve.
*If you have put too much salt in your soup, cook it for a while with a potato that you have peeled and sliced in two, it will absorb a lot of the salt as it cooks.
*Soup can be made with water, but a stock is so much better.
*Don’t overcook a fish stock with bones, heads and shells, it can become bitter.
*With bread soups, the flavour should be strong.
*Soups can be enriched with egg yolks beaten in to them.
*Soup to be served cold should be thick, be aware that as soup cools it becomes thicker, more so if creamed or pureed.
*Soups can be made a day or so before they are wanted, they improve with age.
*Removing fat from a soup is simple, just refrigerate overnight and skim off with a spoon.
*Add a splash or two of wine to your soup, it will boost the flavour.
*Be stylish the way that you serve soup, look for great bowls that will show off how wonderful it is.
*Make a meal of a great bowl of rustic soup, some peasant bread and a splendid salad, wash it all down with a glass or two of good wine.

Just a few soup recipes… I love soup, I have even been known to open a can of Tomato Soup, make it up half water and half milk and sit there happily dipping away with some toast or fresh crusty bread.

Potato And Leek Soup
*one of the great taste sensations, truly adaptable and you don’t have to use a meat stock
*try adding a clove or two of garlic too, its a great combo
*serve it with plenty of great bread

4 large leeks that you have trimmed top and bottom then sliced thickly and put into a bowl of cold water to rid them of the dirt that clings
50 gr (1 1/2oz) butter
2 medium potatoes (not too small) peeled and diced
1 medium onion, chopped small
850mil (28floz) of chicken or vegetable stock
275 mil (9floz) milk
salt and pepper

Put the butter in a heavy based saucepan and melt, add the leeks and onions and cook over a ,moderate heat until they begin to become clear, they should not brown, add the potatoes and stir them around coating them with the butter. Put the lid on the pan and allow the whole lot to sweat over a low heat for about 15 minutes, give them a stir occasionally.

Add the stock and the milk and bring all to the boil, turn the heat down and put the lid back on, now simmer for a further 20 – 30 minutes until all the vegetables have become soft.

Use your hand held liquidiser and process the soup until it is thick and creamy, return to the heat and bring back to the boil, but don’t overcook, it will burn easily now.
Serve it with chives or put it in the fridge for the next day and call it vichyssoise, serve it cold with some sour cream swirled in. Very versatile.

Ham Soup With White Beans
One of those great winter soups that you can make a meal of and leave the table deeply satisfied.
155gr (5oz) dried white beans
6 – 8 stems from Italian flat leafed parsley (you should always keep these, they are so handy to use in a flavour base, just freeze them when you have cut the leaves off and get them out when you want them)
pinch of dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1 tblspn virgin olive oil
125gr (4oz) thickly sliced smoked bacon cut into a 50mm dice
1 medium onion chopped
3 cloves garlic chopped finely
2 smoked ham hocks (available from most delicatessens)
4 tomatoes peeled, seeded and chopped or 1 1/2 cups Italian tinned tomatoes drained and chopped
6 cups good chicken stock (see above)
3 fresh mint stems, bruised with the back of your kitchen knife
salt and black pepper
5 tblspns chopped fresh mint

Cover the white beans with water and soak overnight. Next day, place them in a pot with the parsley. Thyme, bay leaves and enough water to cover the beans by 4 cm. Cook the beans on a simmer for 35 – 45 minutes.

In another pot, add the olive oil and fry the onion and bacon until the onion is soft, add the garlic and cook for a further 3 minutes, add the ham hocks, tomatoes, chicken stock and mint stems, simmer for 1 hour.

Add the beans and continue to simmer for a further hour. Remove the parsley, mint stems and bay leaves. Take the ham hocks out, remove the skin and return the meat to the soup, do not ad the bones. Season with salt and pepper and garnish with the chopped fresh mint.

Serve with crusty bread and a salad to follow.

A Simple Tomato Soup
This is a simple soup made with quite large quantities of garlic. This should not concern you as the garlic looses its pungency in cooking and adds a gorgeous sweetness, don’t panic.
3 tblspns of extra virgin olive oil
2 whole knobs of garlic, each clove peeled and cut in half
1 small onion minced
750gr (24oz) tomatoes peeled seeded and chopped or 2 1/2 cups canned tomatoes
3 cups of chicken stock
1 cup of water
60gr (2oz) of pasta (use one of the small pasta shapes such as stars)
2 tblspns mixed chopped herbs… parsley, thyme, savoury, chives, oregano, basil and marjoram.
salt and fresh ground black pepper
1 tblspn red wine vinegar
1/4 cup of good red wine (whatever you are drinking is great)

Heat the olive oil in a soup pot and add the garlic and onions, sauté over a very slow heat uncovered for 15 minutes. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock and water, simmer uncovered for 10 minutes, add the pasta and herbs continue to simmer for another 10 minutes.

Season with salt and pepper, red wine vinegar and red wine, simmer 2 minutes and serve with great loaves of crusty bread.

Onion Soup From Tuscany
4 large white onions
4 medium leeks well washed to get rid of all the grit and dirt
125gr (4oz) pancetta in one piece
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
6 cups of good chicken stock
3 tblspns of balsamic vinegar
1 cup good red wine
salt and pepper
6 slices of good Tuscan style bread
2 cloves garlic peeled
parmesan cheese to taste
2 tblspns chopped fresh parsley

Peel the onions, cut into very thin slices, cut the leek into 50mm slices, after you have cleaned and dried them, use about 6cm of the green and all the white. The pancetta will be in a roll, unroll it and cut into 25mm slices.

Heat the olive oil in a soup pot, add the pancetta and cook until some fat has been rendered, add the onions and leeks, cook for 15 minutes, add the stock and simmer for 30 minutes.

Just before serving, add the vinegar and red wine, salt and pepper. Rub the bread, one slice for each bowl, with the garlic, toast lightly and place in the bottom of each bowl, pour the soup into the bowl on top of the bread, garnish with the chopped parsley and shave some parmesan onto each bowl (use the potato peeler).

Scotch Broth
The one that our grandmothers used to make, try floating some bread and butter on top and stirring it in just before you eat it. don’t bother with a second course.
1kg (2lb) neck lamb cut into even sized pieces you can use lamb shanks if you would like, 4 good sized or 6 small ones would be about right for this recipe
1.75 litres of cold water
50gr (1 1/2oz) pearl barley
1 large carrot
1 medium turnip or parsnip
1 medium onion,
3 leeks
1/2 small white cabbage
salt and pepper

Place the meat in the cold water, bring to the boil and skim off any scum that rises to the surface, add the rinsed barley and simmer with the lid ajar (slightly off to one side so that the steam can escape) for an hour.

Prepare the vegetables by peeling and cutting them into a 5mm dice. Wash the leeks well and cut into disks 5mm thick. Shred the cabbage finely.

Add the vegetables to the brother and cook until they are tender 45 – 60 minutes.
Remove the meat bones from the soup and return any meat to the soup. Drain any fat from the top of the soup by tilting it to one side.

Sprinkle the top with parsley and serve.

Cream Of Celery Soup
This soup is very simple, but quite delicious.
350gr (11oz) trimmed celery stalks, leaves reserved
110gr(3 3/4oz) potatoes peeled and cit into chunks
white part only of two medium sized leeks, cut into rings and washed well.
25gr (1oz) butter
600mil (20floz) good chicken stock
1/4 tspn of celery seeds (from the herb section of most markets)
150mil (5floz) cream
150mil (5floz) milk
salt and pepper to taste

In a soup pot, melt the butter, add the chopped celery, leeks and potatoes to the pan and toss them well in the melted butter, place the lid on the pan and cook gently for 15 minutes to soften.

Add then stock with the celery seeds and some salt, bring to a simmering point and cook gently for 20 – 25 minutes until the vegetables are really tender.

Puree the soup with a hand held processor, return to the pan and add the milk and cream, add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve each bowl with a leaf or two of the celery floating on top for extra flavour.

Pea Soup
1 ham bone
1 carrot
1 onion
2 potatoes
1 cup split green peas
1 1/2 litres of boiling water
salt and pepper to taste

Soak the split peas overnight. Place all the ingredients in the water, bring to the boil and simmer slowly until the meat is cooked and very tender and the peas have begun to break up.

You have the option here of removing the meat and, using a hand held or food processor, blending the soup to a puree. This may be done with a potato masher.

Season with salt and pepper, add some finely chopped mint leaves. Serve with great crusty bread and give everyone some of the cooked ham.

Old Fashioned Potato Soup
1 litre of good chicken stock (use two stock cubes if you have too, cut right down on the salt to compensate)
6 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 2cm dice
1 large onion, grated or cut into a fine dice
2 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 cup of milk
2 tblspns butter
salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a large saucepan, gently fry the onions and the garlic until it is translucent, add the potatoes and toss in the butter until they begin to sweat, add the chicken stock and bring to the boil, lower to simmer and cook for 1 hour. Add the milk and crush the potatoes with a masher.

Options… There is a lot you can do with this soup, you can add some herbs of your choice such as thyme, rosemary, you can add other vegetables such as celery. You can decrease the stock and increase the milk.

Season well with salt and white pepper.

French Onion Soup
One of the favourites of the seventies, this soup can be added to in many ways. You can add garlic, extra onions, replace some of the stock for a good wine (vermouth was traditional), but don’t omit the bread and cheese, its what makes this soup so delicious.
500gr (1lb) of brown onions cut into slices
60gr (2oz) butter
1 tblspn of flour
1/4 tspns of sugar (it helps the onions brown)
1 litre of goof, well flavoured beef stock, use the cubes if you have to, watch the salt, a spoon or two of beef extracts in the stock will also enrich it.
1 fresh bread stick or loaf
parmesan or gruyere cheese

Melt the butter in the bottom of a good heavy saucepan, add the onions and the sugar, cook slowly to a good brown so that they are almost melting, add the flour and stir to distribute and cook the flour a little, add the stock and vermouth (if using) and cook at a simmer with the lid off, for 30 minutes.

Toast slices of the bread and top with a generous quantity of cheese, place these in the bottom of a soup bowl, top with the soup and place them quickly under the griller to melt and brown the cheese slightly.

A Soup Base For A Variety Of Cream Soups
750 mil (24floz) of good white stock (veal or chicken)
1 medium white onion cut into dice or 1 leek washed and cut into rings
30gr (1oz) of butter
25gr (3/4oz) of flour
salt and pepper to taste.
herb of your choice

The vegetable possibilities are…
*lettuce, use two medium heads chopped fine, add sorrel for extra flavour
*watercress, 2 large bunches of cress.
*spinach (English) 500gr (1lb) of spinach add some grated nutmeg and basil
*cucumber, 2 – 3 large, peeled and cut into a dice, seeds removed, flavour with mint.
*asparagus, 30 – 40 spears, cut into a 2cm dice,
*2 white onions, baked in foil in the oven, cooled and diced.
*carrot, wrap them in foil and cook in the oven for 1 hour, chop them finely.
*mushroom, 220 gr(7oz) of finely chopped mushroom of your choice, sweated in a closed pan until soft.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the onion to sweat with the lid on, add the vegetable of choice to sweat in the butter, also with the lid on, stir in the flour until it is well amalgamated. Add the stock and bring back to the boil. Boil for about 30 minutes or until the vegetable of choice is cooked. Puree the mixture and return to the pan with the addition of 125mil (4floz) of cream, salt and pepper.


~ by peterwatson on August 16, 2011.

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