Sometimes when I visit Melbourne in winter, I see her as if for the first time. Perhaps it’s the light. Or maybe it’s the new energy that charges the centre with brio. Gone are the days of visiting Melbourne with an agenda, striding her university precinct to study Mandarin, travelling with trepidation to the top of Collins street to visit overpaid dentists, or trawling her centre to shop in her famous emporia.
These days, I attempt to visit the city without a particular plan. When trundling along by tram, I am often awed by the highly ornate Victorian facades along the southern end of Elizabeth Street, which only become visible from the height of a tram. Winter evokes Melbourne’s past, highlighting the beauty of granite, sandstone, marble and blue stone. While surrounded by modern colour and plenty of action, my lens fleetingly lands on her historic elements.
From Federation Square, where a group of visiting Chinese have set up a colourful display of large pandas to promote tourism to Chengdu, I wander to a quiet spot and find a lone seagull bathing in mystic sunlight, with gothic St Paul’s in the background.
The familiar Flinder’s Street station, an ochre- coloured Victorian fantasy, takes on a new look as its northern facade is under restoration. Christo comes to town.
She was sitting on a bluestone step near the corner of Rutledge Lane, just past the paint splattered wheelie bins. A waif of a girl, pallid and twig like, she looked like a Manga character, except her eyes were too small and demeanor too fragile. She was wearing a pastel coloured checked shirt over faded denim jeans, her long hair bleached white with pale blue dip- dyed ends. She was rolling a cigarette slowly and self- consciously, not street wise enough to adopt the insouciance of more experienced street artists. She didn’t appear to be homeless, there was something too studied about her appearance for that. Perhaps she came to admire her own art, or to contemplate her next one, or to rue the loss of her favourite piece.
Street art in Hosier Lane and its right-angled annex, Rutledge Lane, is transient. Each visit brings new surprises, new styles, as the genre mutates and evolves. Recent additions include more stencil art and written messages, some with environmental and political content, others with random thoughts.
In the digital age, where many children have instant access to famous art images from worldwide galleries, a visit to a national gallery may produce two completely opposite responses: they will either be enthralled, eager and stimulated or bored, indifferent and restless. Fortunately for me, I visited the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) with a young art sponge: the day was a huge success for both of us. Oliver was keen to visit Van Gogh and the Seasons, an exhibition of 50 paintings and drawings by Van Gogh, which is now showing at the NGV until July 12. Like many other 8 year olds, he had some previous knowledge of the works of Vincent, mostly through art programmes at his school. He had also spent time with me leafing through large glossy art books and discussing these images, something that the curious love doing with an older person, unlike the image trawling, swipe, reject, like, swipe attention span deficient pastimes of today, where discussion, reading, and dialogue are sadly missing.
Our visit was planned a few weeks beforehand, with a discussion of Vincent’s works and a look at a couple of other art movements in history. Oliver was also keen to see the work of Picasso, his current favourite artist, and fortunately, the NGV holds one small painting. He was also keen to see the Michelangelo’s Pietà and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa! I think this boy may need to travel to Italy and France one day.
Detail from Van Gogh. Seasons. NGV
Detail from Van Gogh, Seasons, NGV
Detail from Van Gogh, Seasons, NFV
Detail from Van Gogh, Seasons, NGV
Detail from Van Gogh, Seasons, NGV
Before embarking on a trip to the Gallery with young children, consider the following:
The age of the child. Kids’ attention spans differ greatly from age to age.
The interests of the child. Not everyone travels with an ‘art sponge’ but a trip to the gallery can be tailored to meet the interests of the child.
Pre- planning. Go through the collections online and choose a few pieces from one or two areas that are appealing rather than wandering aimlessly.
Limit the visit to one or two sections so that they are keen to return.
Be informed about the works you have decided to visit. Kids ask a lot of curly questions.
They probably won’t read the plaques alongside each painting. Kids will find stories in the works that will surprise you. I usually ask them to read the date and the artist of each piece.
Don’t be surprised if they move along faster than you would like.
Factor in a few breaks. There are lots of chairs and couches about the gallery. Have a break here and there.
Buy them a few postcards of famous artworks at the end as mementos of their visit.
If visiting a temporary exhibition, such as Van Gogh and the Seasons, book the tickets online before you go and arrive at opening time. There is nothing worse than trying to appreciate art through a sea of heads and iPhones.
The NGV is free of charge- only temporary exhibitions have entrance fees – and is surprisingly empty on a Saturday morning.
A few surprises for Oliver included Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra, held in the 17th to 18th Century European Paintings Gallery, Level 2, NGV International. I am saving a few edited stories about this one for our next visit. He loved the grandeur of it, the dog, and the costumes. Other surprises included the Egyptian Sarcophagus, 700 BC, which led to an endless array of questions about dates, maths, AD versus BC, and the promise that we would return to visit the Egyptian and Ancient Art Collection next time.
I also discovered a few gems and am looking forward to returning to immerse myself in the Art of the Sublime, an English art movement that I find intriguing, and a concept where the word ‘sublime’ ( like other tainted words such as awesome, terrible, amazing, horrible) held far more meaning that it does today. Two works from this movement caught my eye. Mount St Michael, Cornwall by Clarkson Stanfield, 1830 and After the Massacre of Glencoe, by Peter Graham 1889, might need a solo visit, with the stories and the history of Glencoe stored until the young ‘art sponge’ is 14 or so. Let’s hope he’s still keen.
Oliver was impressed that there were no fakes in the gallery, something that I just took for granted but that many kids don’t. The geekish acronym IRL, or In Real Life, resonates loudly here. He is keen to return and I can’t think of a lovelier person to accompany me.
In the cooler hours of the morning, before the tourists take over the yellow streets of Hội An, local couples dressed in traditional costumes arrive for a photo shoot. Weddings, anniversaries, engagements or portraits, many couples choose the less commercial end of Nguyễn Thái Học street for its colourful and historic built background. No one seems to mind my presence alongside or behind the professional photographer, though with my simple lens, the glare makes it hard to focus.
The old town near the Hội An’s historic district, is recognised as an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to 19th century. Chinese and Japanese influences can be seen in the shop fronts, houses and old businesses in the streets closest to the wharf. It is a city requiring a leisurely week or more of you wish to fathom its charms.
Women often choose to wear theáo dài, the Vietnamese national costume, for these portraits.
Other portraits taken in Hội An, Vietnam, can be viewed here and here.
Have you ever eaten something wonderful at a restaurant, determined to replicate the same dish at home? After enjoying the two course lunch special at Cecconi’s cellar bar earlier this week, I inquired about the dessert of the day, hoping that it would be something wintry and old-fashioned. Oh happy day, the dolce del giorno was a wedge of apple, walnut and cinnamon cake, comforting and grandmotherly, jazzed up with modern restaurant toppings, including cinnamon ice cream, tiny cubes of apple jelly and something crunchy, perhaps a disc of meringue. No photo was taken: greed intervened long before any thoughts of pics entered my mind. It was good.
My version is close enough to Cecconi’s torta, without the flash toppings. A little dusting of icing sugar is enough but a dollop of Frangelico infused mascarpone goes well too. The cake morphs into a simple dessert when warmed and served with custard or ice cream. Hideous winter begone with a little warm pudding.
Torta di Mele, Noce e Cannella. Apple, Walnut and Cinnamon cake.
200 gr butter
250 gr caster sugar
300 gr plain flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking powder
100 gr chopped walnuts
500 gr apples, peeled, cored, finely diced
Preheat the oven to 180°C. Butter a 20 cm square tin. Dust with flour or line with parchment if you prefer.
Cream butter and sugar well then add eggs, one at a time, and beat until creamy.
Mix together the flour, cinnamon and baking powder then add to the batter.
Fold in the walnuts and apples. Place in the prepared baking tin, ( it will be a stiff batter), smoothing the top, then bake for 60 minutes. Rest before turning onto a wire rack.
In a country like China, where everyday life is complex, busy, and often crowded, order creates harmony. It enables Chinese life to work smoothly. Orderliness can be seen in the cleanliness of the streets, the hygiene applied to food preparation and the behaviour of the Chinese people. The ancient principles of Confucianism, a system of norms and propriety that determine how a person should act in everyday life, underlies many aspects of Chinese society, with later overlays of buddhism, daoism, communism and capitalism. Below: some sketches of everyday life in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.
In my kitchen and its surrounding leisure zone, we are keeping warm as today’s temperature hovers between 2°C to 14°C. It will get colder. Spending more time indoors, mostly hanging around the old Huon pine table, means efficient heating becomes imperative. One early improvement we made to the kitchen and dining area was the installation of double glazing. This, more than any other home improvement, has been worth the cost. In this much lived in area, the windows face north with narrow overhanging eaves. The house, designed in the 1980s, incorporates some aspects of passive solar principles, whereby the low angle of the winter sun warms the room, with the reverse occurring in the height of summer.
Our new wood heater adds another layer of warmth and an appealing glow. Nectre heaters are Australian made and have a great reputation. This bakers oven heats a 10 square space very efficiently. Cooking stock on the top of the heater saves on gas. I look forward to mastering the use of the little oven.
In this warm space, little vignettes of domesticity capture my attention, especially when a few strong shafts of light stream in. I find myself grabbing the camera more often, trying to capture that heavenly baroque light. That, or curling up on a sun bathed couch with a good book. Note that the new interloper, the clothes airer, has been edited out, along with the oversized kitchen table, now cluttered with a deluge of pastimes, paperwork and pencils.
Drying out mandarin and orange peels on or near the wood stove fills the kitchen area with citrus fragrance. The dried peels make great firelighters.
A large express postal bag arrived last week. Peter, who lives in Far North Queensland, sent me an assortment of tropical fruit he picked that morning. The slightly squashed papaya, the rambutan and mangosteen brought the heady perfumes of tropical rainforest to my kitchen. Peter also sent a swag of ginger, galangal and turmeric which grow in plague proportions in his yard. I’ve frozen most of these gems to make an authentic Indonesian curry in the future.
Today I picked all the remaining borlotti beans from the garden. The first frosts of the year will arrive this week: all the green tomatoes need to be gathered and the lemongrass divided and potted up for winter. The borlotti beans prefer Autumn weather. They were sown in late February and matured slowly. I am very pleased with this year’s haul.
There’s a stack of recently acquired cookbooks in my kitchen. To be truthful, there are little stacks of books everywhere in my house. Not mess, I’ll have you know. Decor and Inspiration! Some of these books were found at my favourite second-hand shop: My China by Kylie Kwong cost less than a copy of a weekend newspaper, as did Beverley Sutherland Smith’s The Seasonal Kitchen. Made in Italy by Silvia Colocca was a birthday gift from my sister. I bought Bourke Street Bakery online and am not finding it so useful, and Leanne Kitchen’s Turkey and The Baker also turned up somewhere very cheaply. Now I have to address the lack of bookshelf space.
Some baby Roma tomatoes, the last of the season, ripen on the northern windowsill.
A couple of second-hand items, a matching spotted jug and sugar bowl, found in that same second-hand store now hang out with the white stuff, shells, feathers and dead lizard on my kitchen dresser. As my friend Di would say, ‘Well spotted’.
Thanks Sherry of Sherry’s Pickings for hosting this monthly series. Your new system is working smoothly.
I recently discovered that grass-fed meat costs an arm and a leg in Australia. As I don’t eat meat, I was oblivious to the various labels and grading used in our meat industry. Call me naive, but I just assumed that Aussie cows wandered around in paddocks until the man with the truck arrived to take them off to the abattoir. Not so. And as I pondered the range of options in the supermarket, thinking that I might make a slow cooked ragu for the children, I was faced with all sorts of dilemmas. A basic cut of grass-fed beef, commonly referred to as gravy beef, costs around AU$18 a kilo. The next option was something called MSA beef. I asked the check out girl what MSA stood for but she said she had no idea. A quick search will reveal that it stands for Meat Standards Australia, but having watched the video and read the nonsense attached to the site, I still feel in the dark and am siding with the check out girl. There was no mention of grass, but I discovered that the MSA stamp is “a grading system based on actual consumer research”. Really? Sounds a little Orwellian to me. Then came the meat trays with no little stamps at all- nicely wrapped in plastic on styrofoam trays and looking all red and juicy- and much cheaper. No information was attached to this meat: I guess it meets no standards at all.
I went to the local hairdresser and discovered that she also lives on a small acreage farm and breeds a few cows and sheep for the table. She has more grass than I do and, as meat eater, she is ready to slaughter her own grass-fed animals. I admire that. There’s a local butcher in Hurstbridge who will do the butchering for you. You need to hire a bobcat or tractor to dig the large hole for the carcasses. You need to separate the animals for at least a day and make sure that they fast for 24 hours or so. I guess you then have to wear earplugs while the cows moo and fret, not to mention the fear and anxiety of the rest of the herd as this process occurs. I can’t bring myself to do this.
We have five grass-fed cows and sadly two or three have to go due to lack of grass in winter. They have done a fine job supplying us with manure for our compost heaps and keeping the grass down during bushfire season. It seems such a shame that our cows who have had a happy life will end up at an abattoir and their meat will appear on a plastic wrapped supermarket tray with an idiotic MSA sticker attached or perhaps not even that.
Autumn is many seasons rolled into one. Gone now are the Keatsian days of early Autumn, that abundant time when the garden finally comes good with the fully blown fruits of an earlier season’s hard work. Then my mornings were filled with preserving: now I sweep and rake fallen leaves and gather ‘morning wood’, dry sticks and kindling to store for lighting fires. I often think of Lao Tzu when sweeping. An old black and white ink print on rice paper rises again to haunt me, flashbacks of Nepal, Swayambhunath and Francis, friend and Nepalese expat who helped revive the lost art of Tibetan ink printing during the 70s. Daoist, peaceful, impressionistic, the memory of this print and the act of sweeping helps clear the brain.
Autumn’s cold snap, a preparation for things to come, is followed by days of sunshine and warm weeks, a glorious Indian summer, confusing some plants and encouraging others to linger. Chillies have re-flowered, fruit tree buds are swelling: all in vain I’m afraid.
Just as I begin to indulge in the melancholy that comes with late Autumn, along come the Borlotti beans in their splendid pink scribbled coats and plump promise. I’ve been watching them and feeling them for weeks. One of their alternate names in Italian is Fagioli Scritti, a more vivid and appropriate title for this colourful and useful bean. I grow the tall variety and usually plant them late in the season. They are adapting to our microclimate as the same seeds are picked late and saved from year to year.
The cheery colour of pink tinged lettuce is also a mood changer. All the lettuces are better in the cold: cos and romaine, curly endive, bitter escarole, the butterheads and the soft oakleaf varieties, rugola, each one delicious on its own but more so when mixed. Large pink radishes and the ‘heart of darkness’ radicchio are now in their prime. Beautiful colours painted by cold.
This version of Autumn Leaves seems to suit this season. It makes sense of nostalgia, missing and parting more than the crooning versions of the 50s, although the original French version, LesFeuilles Mortes, written in 1945, is also rather charming.
Another rainy day in Myanmar. We spent the morning visiting the vast temple grounds of Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Out of nowhere, a flash of crimson passed by, an evanescent moment. The colour, so striking against the backdrop of gold, was unexpected, as was the youth and animation of the group. The young monks were quiet and respectful as they ambled through this magnificent Buddhist monument but their gait and facial expressions revealed something else.
Buddhist monastic schools play a vital role in the education of the poor and underprivileged throughout Myanmar, as well as in Laos and Thailand. I often visit these schools when in the vicinity, and watch as young monks are instructed in business maths or English grammar or art, the latter usually based on sculpting Buddhist images or restoring carved panels.
‘ Generally, Burmese monastic schools accept children from needy families who live nearby and are unable to attend government schools. Many of the orphans who attend monastery schools in Yangon and Mandalay are from remote areas and have been sent by senior monks from their villages and small towns. Some operate similarly as boarding schools and some as day schools depending on the situation and support of the public.
The schools are required to cooperate closely with township education authorities to be officially recognized. The operation and finance rely heavily on donations and collaboration from the public. The fees of most of the students at the school were covered by these donations, and some parents were able to make a small contribution.’¹