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.
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.
Australians and New Zealanders will be celebrating ANZAC Day today, a national holiday which commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in wars and conflicts, with a particular focus on the landing of the ANZACs at Gallipoli, Turkey on April 25 1915. Coincidentally, April 25 is also significant in the Italian calendar as it marks theFesta Della Liberazione (Liberation Day), also known as Anniversario della Resistenza (Anniversary of the Resistance), an Italian national holiday. Italian Liberation Day commemorates the end of the Italian Civil War, the partisans who fought in the Resistance, and the end of Nazi occupation of the country during WW2. In most Italian cities, the day will include marches and parades. Most of the Partisans and Italian veterans of WW2 are now deceased: very few Italians would have first hand memories of that era.
One of the more accessible documents from the partigiani era of the 1940s is the well-known song,Bella Ciao, which has been adopted by resistance movements throughout the world since then. The original Partisan version is included here. Open this clip: you can find the lyrics in English and Italian at the end of this post.
Many Italian versions, including this modern rendition by the Modena City Ramblers, have appeared over the years, while international adaptations include punk, psychedelic and folk versions in many languages. A Kurdish version was revived after an ISIS attack in 2014, and the Anarchist movement has also appropriated the song. Popular folk songs are often derivative and evolutionary: the history of BellaCiao makes a fascinating study in itself. There are two threads to follow here. The original version of this song dates back to the 1850s: the first written version appeared in 1906 which was sung by women workers in the risaie, or rice paddies of Northern Italy. The lyrics concern the harsh working conditions of the Mondine. The fascinating rice workers version can be heard here, sung by Giovanna Daffini, recorded in 1962.¹
”The Mondine or Mondariso were female seasonal workers employed in Northern Italy’s rice fields, especially in Lombardia, Piedmont, Emilia Romagna and Veneto. Their task was to remove weeds that could stunt the growth of rice plants. Working conditions were extremely hard, as the job was carried out by spending the whole day bent over, often bare-foot, with legs immersed in water; malaria was not uncommon, as mosquitoes were widespread. Moreover shifts were long and women were paid significantly less than men. For these reasons since early in the 20th century, mondine started to organise themselves to fight for some basic rights, in particular to limit shifts to 8 hours a day.’
The other thread concerns the euphony of the song itself. The much older women’s version, a slower folkloric piece, reflects the plight of the women rice field weeders in their struggle for better working conditions. The 1940s partisan version became more masculine and heroic, despite the sombre sentiments expressed in the lyrics. Most of the modern versions sound Russian, revolutionary, or defiant. Slower versions suggest Yiddish as well as gypsy roots, which may indicate the melodic path of this song during the 19th century. I’ve selected two more versions which reflect these latter impressions. They can be heard here and here.
The partigiani make fitting heroes for Liberation Day: no one would deny that their struggle was courageous and honourable. However, one might question the level of mytholgising when it comes to patriotic days such as Liberation Day. The day was initiated by Alcide De Gasperi, the Prime Minister of Italy between 1945 to 1953. It could be seen as a very astute political move to create a national holiday centred around liberation.² It signified a break with Italy’s fascist past, an era spanning 25 years, as well as assisting the new Italian government establish a stable democracy.
Parallels may be drawn between the idealisation of the ItalianPartisans and the Australian and New Zealand soldiers of World War 1. The stories and the images of those struggles are often used to boost a sense of national identity and patriotism in both countries.
See also my previous posts on April 25, Anzac Day.
¹ Giovanna Daffini (22 April 1914 – 7 July 1969) was an Italian singer associated with the Nuovo Canzoniere Italiano movement. Born in the province of Mantua, she started associating with travelling musicians from an early age. During the rice-growing season she worked in the rice-growing districts of Novara and Vercelli where she learnt the folk-songs that afterwards made her famous. In 1962 she recorded the song “Alla mattina appena alzata”, a version of Bella Ciao, for the musicologists Gianni Bosio and Roberto Leydi.
I rang my 13-year-old grandson to ask if he had eaten any hot cross buns today. He sounded disinterested and replied ‘no’, in a polite but bemused way. I could almost hear his brain ticking over, perhaps with a ‘What the ..? Has Nanna finally lost the plot, ringing me about Hot Cross Buns?’ After all, the kids have been eating these buns since Boxing Day. That’s when they begin appearing in Australian supermarkets. By the time Good Friday comes around, the novelty has worn off. So much for tradition.
I then rang my eldest son, and asked him the same question. At least he is perfectly aware of the symbolic nature of these buns. No, he had also had his fill of the supermarket product along the way, and was whipping up some scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast. Yes, another pagan in our midst. I am the first one to appreciate the secular nature of our society: I am not only a ‘collapsed’ Catholic but also don’t count myself as Christian. Having said that, I don’t see much point in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. After all, these buns are a seasonal and festive treat and it’s important to explain the meaning of the added crosses to the young folk. History and tradition form a part of who we are. At the same time, we happily appropriate any Buddhist and Hindu rituals that may suit us along the way. Buddhist meditation becomes mindfulness ( and loses a lot in translation), Diwali is taking off in Australia and Chinese New year is popular too. Australia is a wonderful melting pot of cultures, but as we grab hold of the new, we should also at least understand the old, and adapt some of those traditions to our modern taste.
I now make hot Cross buns annually, just a dozen. The yeasted variety is light and perfect for our Autumnal weather. Next year I will increase the amount of spice in the recipe I used. They cost very little to make and are far more digestible than the common supermarket variety. If you are a beginner at yeasted baking, try Celia’s recipe here. It is foolproof and very straightforward.
The other fond tradition I hang on to is my dedication to cooking smoked Cod on Good Friday. This is an old Irish Catholic Australian thing. Most Scottish descendants did not have this bright yellow dyed fish imposed on them as youngsters on Good Friday. If you feel slightly ambivalent about smoked cod, go to the fish market and buy the real thing from the Shetland Islands which tastes peaty and less salty. I buy it at the Preston Market, from one fishmonger who has, by 9 am on Easter Thursday, queues 5 deep. I am told by Sandra that it is available all year round at the Prahran market.
One way to enjoy a piece of good quality smoked Cod is to forget your grandmother’s recipe, which consisted of an overcooked piece of fish, served with white parsley sauce, alongside boiled vegetables. Maintaining the tradition but stepping it up a notch or two makes the elements of this dish more appetising. Make an Easter fish pie, incorporating the poached smoked cod, along with poached white fish and a handful of shrimp, in a white sauce, and top with buttery mashed potato. The sides? A tossed green salad with lots of mustard in the dressing, another Irish note.
This post was inspired by my friend Peter’s comment a few days ago. Peter lives in tropical Far North Queensland, where some of these culinary traditions would seem totally out-of-place.
Ever since the fresh fig supply stepped up at Casa Morgana, I’ve been imagining all sorts of fig dishes and recalling fig episodes in my semi sleep. I’m harvesting around 20 plump figs per day and many are beginning to rot on trays before my eyes. One of those memories involves making fig jam in Languedoc, France, in 1985. At one point, we had many ‘baguette with jam’ eating Australians staying with us and we were burning through the confiture at a rapid rate. We noticed a field of ripe figs going to waste and approached the farmer to ask him if we could pick them to make jam. Mais oui, he said dismissively, gesturing that the crop was nothing more than pig food. At some point mid jam making, Helen thought it would be nice to add some ginger to the mix, so we sent the 14-year-old girls off to the local supermarché to buy some. They returned empty handed. Sunshine demonstrated how many times she attempted her best pronunciation of the request. Je voudrais du ginger, s’il vous plaît, was met with blank stares, compelling the girls to adopt some very stereotyped French accents, repeating the word ginger over and over again. They were hysterical with laughter by the time they returned.
Another fig food memory was eating Saganaki served with a sweet fig sauce at Hellenic Republic, Brunswick, when it first opened. That sauce is based on dried figs with pepper and balsamic and can be served all year round with fried cheese.
Fig tree in the morning dew
Chinese bowl with Figs, by Giovanna Garzoni, 1600-1670
Figs in blue bowl after Garzoni
This little entrée draws on both experiences. It is warm, sweet and jammy on top, and cold and salty underneath, with the nuts providing a Baklava style crunch. It takes 5 minutes to prepare and makes a very elegant starter.
Fig and Fetta Fantasia.
Ingredients, for two serves.
150 gr (approx weight) quality Greek fetta cheese, sheep or goat, such as Dodoni (not Bulgarian as it has the wrong texture for this dish)
6 large ripe figs, halved
2 tablespoons honey
1 dessertspoon vincotto
2 tablespoons walnuts, chopped.
Cut the cold fetta into 4 thin batons.
Heat a small frying pan. Warm the honey and vincotto together until beginning to bubble. Turn down the heat and add the figs to the honey mixture. Cook gently on both sides for a few minutes so that the figs absorb some of the liquid.
Meanwhile, toast the walnut pieces in a small pan and watch that they don’t burn.
Assemble the dish by laying two fetta pieces on each serving plate. Top with hot figs and drizzle with the remaining liquid. Scatter the toasted walnuts on top.
As the afternoon reaches its zenith, it is traditional for holiday makers, local residents and sunset chasers to drag their chairs down to the white sandy shores of Port Phillip Bay, and waste time in the loveliest way, ‘Watching the ships roll in, And then I watch ’em roll away again.’ As time gently floats by, the moody sunset spectacle begins, all the more dazzling for its reflected glory in the gentle waters of the laguna: pink shifts to orange then purple and black bands ribbon the twilight.
From our comfortable perspective, we imagine what life might be like atop one of these vessels. I have no interest in going on a cruise but I wouldn’t mind travelling in one of these ships as it makes its way from the Port of Melbourne to the heads at Queenscliff and Portsea. A working boat perhaps, a container ship or rig.
When I first studied Keats’ Ode to Autumn as a 17-year-old student, I was naive, optimistic and ignorant, full of expectation and youthful determination. The possibilities of life stretched out endlessly before me. I was in the Spring of my life: this metaphor, now considered clichéd, was not lost on me at the time, but then again, how could I have fully understood the real depth of this Keatsian analogy, not having travelled very far through the successive seasons of life. My literature teacher laid strong foundations for future and deeper understandings. Good literature requires frequent visitations.
‘To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.’
I’m now in the Autumn of my life and am delighted to be here: I wouldn’t want to be 18, or 38 or 55 still. Those times were good: each season brought blessings and joys, angst and worry. Each season does. I just happen to love Autumn more and cling to whatever this season brings, knowing that my winter is not so far away.
‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.’
I visit the vegetable garden now and am rewarded with the products of our particular Summer: volatile and untrustworthy, youthful and full of energy, promises are made and broken. Patience is important when dealing with summer. Autumn is long and slow, with cool beginnings, windless warm days and soft pink, crimson, turning to tangerine sunsets. The ‘conspiracy’ is now over: we are loaded and blessed with fruits and vegetables and I’m not in a hurry to tamper with the season or hurry it along.
Hiding along walkways, slow maturing pumpkins need another two lazy months before they surrender their sweetness and hard flesh for storing. Meanwhile, the zucchini are on display again, more loud and showy than the petite summer offerings: new flowers, bees and prolific fruits appear daily. Large seed filled zeppelins appear far too quickly now.
‘To swell the gourd’
There could be a part two to my Keatsian story: to think that we have only just begun our gentle waltz through Autumn.
My previous Keatsian posts can be viewed here and the full verse can be found here.
I was tempted to call this post,”Let the Winds Blow High”, as most of the ‘lads’ were keen to get kilted up for the Celtic birthday party. Prior to the event, there was much talk about free- balling it, always a wonderful tease for the ladies. Sadly these were vain threats, tales “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. There were no Bravehearts on the day.
The anticipation of a themed party is as much fun as the event itself. The opportunity shops ( charity shops) were thoroughly scoured in the weeks leading up to the party, in search of kilts, tartan cloth, scarves and rugs, green clothing, Celtic knotted jewellery, Scottish bonnets and hats, and anything quirkily Celtic. It’s amazing what you can find. I wanted to come as Grace O’Malley ( Gráinne Ní Mháille ),¹ my Irish heroine, or wear a T-shirt printed with the label, “If lost, return to Jamie Fraser”, but the latter, with its Outlander reference, would have been lost on all the other party goers.
Our Celtic party happily coincided with the weeks leading up to St Patrick’s Day so the local $2 shops provided green kitsch galore. Online shops are a great source for Scottish flags and hanging four leaf clover strings. And red wigs were popular too.
Decor and dress ups were the easy part of the theme. The finger food proved far more difficult, especially given the balmy afternoon, the lack of good cooking facilities, and the general preference for Celtic style drinking on the day. I had planned to cook up some local Mt Martha mussels and stuff them with spinach, cheese and crumbs as my token nod to Brittany, but the day just disappeared. The Cornish Celts were represented with some mini Cornish pasties that I made before the event, based on this recipe. Other finger foods came in the form of sausage rolls and filled pastries. My sister whipped up some potato pancakes topped with smoked salmon, a fitting cross -Celtic food. Green coloured cocktails were popular, say no more!
Picture file below can be opened separately for a costume and decor guide to a Celtic themed party.