Thursday, 4 July 2013

1st Bullecourt, lamb, and beer

Lamb and beer – what could be more Australian? On a freezing January night in the Pas de Calais, I ate Flemish lamb casserole, cooked with beer, and thought about Australian history. We were travelling in France, and had spent the day walking the field of battle at Bullecourt, a village 15 km southeast of the market town of Arras. We were on the trail of family history – not mine, but my former wife’s. Her great uncle Harry had been part of the 1st Battle of Bullecourt, 11 April 1917.

Part of a major offensive mounted by the Allies to break the German defensive line on the western front, the first battle of Bullecourt was notable for a few things. It was one of the first times that tanks had been deployed on the battlefield. However, in 1917 there was no tactical, operational, or strategic doctrine on how to deploy tanks. There weren’t many tanks either, and they were seen as infantry support tools. At Bullecourt, their role was to crush the wire barricades of the Hindenburg Line, for the infantry to then occupy. In a remarkable stroke of optimism, cavalry squadrons were concentrated behind the infantry, ready to exploit a breakthrough and wreak havoc in the German rear. As it happened, the tanks were mechanically unreliable — some broke down before reaching the start line. They were very slow, and soon outpaced by the infantry. The tanks’ slow pace meant that they were highly vulnerable to artillery fire. And so, on the day, tanks made little impact on the battle. There was no breakthrough. The cavalry was stood down.

However, Australian infantry from the 4th Division achieved a remarkable feat. C. E. W. Bean, the official Australian war historian, commented:

“the 4th Australian Division had achieved what most soldiers then in France would previously have believed impossible — broken, without artillery barrage, the Hindenburg Line”.

Great uncle Harry’s story is typical of so many young Australians of the day. He grew up in a strict Methodist family, living on an orchard block near Richmond, northwest of Sydney. There is a remarkable body of information on individual diggers available from the Australian War Memorial. We read, fascinated, official records of his enlistment and training, then shipping out from Australia as a “Six Bob A Day Tourist”. He arrives in Suez, and quickly appears on the sick parade lists — with a dose of the clap. Given his age and conservative background, we speculate that the courtesans of Suez were probably his first ( and only?) sexual experience.

He ends up in France, a lone New South Welshman surrounded by Sandgropers, in the 48th Battalion, 1st AIF — the “Joan of Arc” battalion. The nickname is not patriotic, but a wry pun. And so Harry was part of the assault by the 4th Division AIF on the Hindenburg Line, immediately east of the small village of Bullecourt. Despite problems with the tanks, things went well, largely due to good tactical command, and the attacking infantry occupied the German lines. Confusion about supporting artillery fire, however, left them vulnerable to counterattack, and, after some hours, the 48th Battalion position was untenable. They withdrew. Bean again:

"a full hour after every other battalion had left the trenches, the 48th came out — under heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, but with proud deliberation and studied nonchalance, at walking pace, picking their way through the broken wire, carrying a proportion of their Lewis guns, carefully helping the walking wounded, and with their officers bringing up the rear. Wherever Australians fought, that characteristic gait was noted by friend and enemy, but never did it furnish such a spectacle as here. For ten minutes the attention of half the battlefield was held while, leisurely as a crowd leaving its daily work, the 48th drew clear”.

Despite his status as Official War Correspondent appointed by the Australian government, Bean was often less than objective, particularly in his advocacy of the Australian digger. And this is a typical example. Nevertheless, he paints a compelling picture of the 48th Battalion’s retirement that day. Even if he makes it sound like a crowd leaving the WACA after a long day of cricket. 

Great Uncle Harry was wounded at Bullecourt. Given the nature of his wounds — gunshot to the hip and buttock — we speculate that they were received during the withdrawal of the 48th from the Hindenburg Line. He was invalided off the battlefield, spent months in a rehabilitation hospital in England, and was eventually repatriated back to Australia, before the Armistice, declared medically unfit. He lived quietly on the farm at Richmond with his mother. And he died, still a young man, a few years later, never having fully recovered from his wounds — a hidden casualty of WWI. 

We wandered across the battlefield on that cold day. Desolate, windswept chalk downs, intensively farmed; all signs of the war long gone.
Looking from the Allied lines toward the Hindenburg Line, in the distance
We marvelled at the notion of crossing ground as open as this under enemy fire — there is no cover. Bullecourt village has strong Australian connections — there is Le Canberra café, a Rue des Australiens, and a bronze slouch hat memorial.

Just outside the village is a big official Australian war memorial, with a life size bronze digger.
Perhaps more interesting is the small shrine, about half a kilometre east of town, marking the spot where the Hindenburg Line crossed the road. It’s around here that Harry and his mates sheltered after taking the German positions.
Memorial on the Hindenburg Line at the Riencourt road, looking towards the Allied lines
Back in Arras, we see wattle fronds in a florist’s shop, and wish we had taken some to leave on the roadside memorial. After a drink, we warm up with lamb stew. It’s a typical dish of the region.  We wonder if Harry and the others might have eaten such a thing when they were bivouacked in the area. As a change from bully beef. It is rich, warming, delicious.

This cold winter, remembering all this years later, I find a bunch of recipes on the net. The common theme is braising some lamb and root vegetables in beer. A number of recipes — mainly American — swap out the lamb for beef. Americans just don’t seem to get lamb, do they? But I stick with lamb. And a tasty Belgian dark beer. Cooked slowly, it is tender, succulent and warming in the depths of winter. Add a green vegetable. As it was a Flemish dish, I go for Brussels sprouts — that most maligned of vegetables.

It went well with more beer. And brought back a flood of memories about my trip through Flanders, and the young Australian men who had died there.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Soup from Karelia

On a cold lunchtime in Christmas week, I stepped from a train in eastern Finland, into sunshine. Helsinki, three hours westerly, had been cloudy and snowbound all week. This was the first time I had seen sunshine since Bondi Beach, on the day of my flight. Pale, watery, low on the horizon, but definitely sun – I had a shadow again.

I had come to Imatra – playground of empresses and aristos for 300 years – to see a dam. And a church. But first – lunch! I was hungry. Imatra could wait. A cosy table at the Buttenhoff. "Was I cold? Would I like a hot rum toddy before lunch"? Well – yes to both. With the rum under my belt, circulation restored, she came back – there was lunch a la carte, or a set menu of Finnish Yuletide specialties. Well, no brainer - I’ll have the Christmas specials, thank you. It was a wonderful meal. But of all the delicious things I ate that day, the one that stuck with me longest was the mushroom soup. Steaming hot, rich, wonderful, full of mushrooms. I decided on the spot that soup would come from my kitchen, once the weather in Sydney cooled down a bit.

Imatra. The district was an early watering hole for the Russian nobility. Catherine the Great and her court visited in 1772, and tourism has been a major industry ever since; the Imatrankoski Rapids were the draw card. By the turn of the 20th Century, grand hotels lined the river bank above the rapids, and Imatra had become a popular honeymoon destination. These days, besides tourism, the town is dominated by the hydroelectric industry. It even gets into the town’s coat of arms.
The key to understanding all this history and geography lies in the geology. As usual. In a country that is very flat, Imatra lies on one of the major topographic features dominating southern Finland. The Salpausselkä ridge system is a glacial terminal moraine – a ridge of gravel and sand that formed at the edge of the Baltic ice sheet during the last ice age, and was left behind as the glaciers retreated, about 12,000 - 10,000 years ago. The ridge lines are up to 100 m above the surrounding landscape, run for hundreds of kilometres, and have been major migratory routes throughout prehistory.
Today, the modern highway and railway systems follow the high ground of the Salpausselkä ridges, skirting the strew of lakes and mire to the north. From my train, high on the moraine ridge, I had seen out on both sides, over the never-ending forests and frozen lakes of eastern Finland. Only a few rivers breach the ridge line, including the Vuoski River at Imatra, where the ridge line provides head for the impressive rapids, and for the hydroelectric industry.

Modern Imatra had little to show of its interesting past. Like much of eastern Finland, it was devastated by conflict in the early 1940s – the Winter War and Continuation War, as the Finns call WWII. I suspect little was left standing. And as for the dam, and the church? I didn’t see either of them. Imatra is very spread out – from the dam to the church is about 15 km. I hadn’t yet got used to the northern winter’s short days, and by the time I had finished lunch and a short stroll around town, it was almost dark. I’ll just have to come back in summer ...
The church I wanted to see is the Church of Three Crosses, designed by Alvar Aalto, Finland’s leading modernist architect, in 1953. It has his characteristic, highly articulated roof form.
The dam is on the Vuoski River, near the town. Enough for another visit.
So, the mushroom soup. Really simple. I sweated some finely chopped onion and garlic; sautéed a load of finely sliced big mushrooms (“flats” if you can get them – more flavour than baby button mushrooms). I added some dried porcini that I had soaked in boiling water. Simmered in chicken and vegetable stock, and seasoned with salt, pepper, lemon zest, and a dash of lemon juice. A little cream to soften the texture, and my soup was perfect. Dead easy, and perfect on a cold midwinter day. And full of reminiscence about Finland.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

The First Church of Bruce

Bruce Springsteen played three nights in Sydney in March 2012. This was a series for newcomers, and the faithful — the acolytes of the cult of Bruce Springsteen. It is 10 years since his last concert in Sydney, in late March 2003. That was a different, more sombre time. The confected Gulf War 2 had commenced the day before. In Sydney, and around the world, we had marched in protest, to no avail. Wars come and go; hard times, and good times, come and go. Bruce Springsteen, seemingly, goes on forever. And now, with all of us 10 years older, he was back. The 2003 show was the infamous “power failure” concert, where power completely cut out, mid-song, four times during the gig. It was time for Sydney to redeem itself.

E Street Band concerts typically start in darkness, with Bruce counting the band in. “Hello. Sydney! One, two, one two three four” and we’re off. Coming the day after St Patrick’s Day, Monday night was different. With a single spotlight, Sooze Tyrell’s Irish jig fiddle kicked off the set, and the Sydney season, with American Land. What came next was three nights of incredible showmanship. Bruce is getting on — he’s 63. He doesn’t let up for the whole 3 hours + of these shows — bellowing, cajoling, dancing, running. Sweating. Touching; shaking hands with what seems like a large proportion of the audience. Hauling himself off the stage floor with the microphone stand. Amongst some set pieces, crowd surfing comes early each night, as he makes his way along catwalks to the back of the pit, then is conveyed by the upheld hands of the faithful, back to the stage, singing the while.

The atmosphere is quasi-religious. This IS the First Church of Bruce; we are his true believers. Miss Annie, my companion at the first two shows, attending her first ever Bruce concert, commented that she felt she was in a small minority — not being a Brucehead. By the end of the 2nd night, she was, I suspect, on her way to conversion. Her conversion was aided by a miraculous intervention. Passing through the turnstile on Wednesday night, the mechanism caught and tore her dress. In front of the arena manager. Who promptly upgraded our tickets to some of the best in the house — certainly the best tix I have EVER had at a Bruce show. I’m sticking with her in future. Halleluiah!

As the faithful, we know just when to cheer; when to throw our fists in the air, shouting “Tramps Like US”; when to call out “Bruuuuuuuuce”, in a sustained bellow that sounds like booing to the uninitiated. When to tell Bruce about the “shark infested waters” that surround Australia. All the familiar elements are there — the crowd placards requesting favourite songs; the sponging of his fevered brow, which becomes more frequent as the night wears on. On Wednesday, Nils Lofgren took it one step further, anointing a kneeling Bruce, his guitar, wireless connection, the lot, in a spontaneous baptism.

Bruce, and the band, whip up the fervour in non-stop sets that are finely tuned, with enough light and shade to build, sustain, lower the mood multiple times before the finale and the seemingly endless encores of standards. Amongst the sets are many stand-out moments. The chill and goose bumps that arise during the early verses of The Ghost of Tom Joad. This is a song that has undergone a metamorphosis over time. I originally heard it as a solo, acoustic number on the Tom Joad tour in 1996. It was gently haunting. Now, it starts quietly, but builds to a roaring, angry finale, with Tom Morello’s guitar frenzy. Just as the standard Born in the USA was turned on its head, getting a reflective, acoustic treatment of the original electric number, the reverse process in this case has also bought new meaning and expression to this song.

Waiting on a Sunny Day had originally struck me as a bit naff, when I first heard it performed live on, the Magic tour. Bruce concerts have always had a bunch of feel-good, jaunty roadhouse numbers; familiarity and a bit of rejigging has made this one of the big sing along songs in the repertoire. Shackled and drawn is another rollicking sing along.

My City of Ruins has also morphed, into a slow Curtis Mayfield blues-style, gospel-inspired moment of reflection about who has come and gone — “from our ghosts to yours”. It was simple and magnificent. Old ghost re-appear in the set piece show closer, Tenth Avenue Freezeout — when the line “And the Big Man joined the band” triggers a video featuring frozen moments of Clarence Clemons and, briefly, Danny Federici. And you could hear a pin drop in the room.

But all the set list writing skills in the world can go for nought when audience sign requests shoulder their way into the mix. On Wednesday, he took four in a row, saying as he scanned the offerings “Man, you’re tempting me!”. These always amaze, with the band — and the instrument techs — kept on their toes. Choosing The Promised Land required a blues harp, in the right key, to be delivered onstage in an instant. It was. The transitions from song to song are seamless.

These shows were a chance to assess the new band arrangements. Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici died after the Magic tour; also missing for this tour were Miss Patti Scialfa, and Steve van Zandt, making a film in Norway. Clarence has been replaced by his nephew Jake Clemens, who fill the Big Man’s shoes admirably. Standing four square, astride the stage, he is commanding in his frequent sax solos. Charles Giordano ably replaces Danny Federici on keyboards and gets some piano accordion solos in the Seeger Sessions end of the repertoire. The original E Street Band is now augmented by a large brass section, additional percussion, and backing vocals. Sooze Tyrrell was doubling on acoustic rhythm guitar in Patti Scialfa’s absence. The new band format lies somewhere between the E Street Band of old and the Seeger Sessions Band, and works well. The additional horns get some exciting moments. Nils Lofgren continues to supply searing guitar lines. He has always been the guitar master in a band of very competent guitarists. At times he plays second fiddle to Steve van Zandt’s replacement guitarist Tom Morello and his flamboyant solos, but comes back with a vengeance. And whirls like a dervish.

By Friday, the mood was up even more. That day was the 10th anniversary — to the day — of the power failure concert. Bruce was in a party mood. Sydney was out to show him a good time. The set list was shouldered out of the way by a string of audience sign requests, and Bruce was ready to roadhouse. He has a body of songs — Darlington County, Dancing in the Dark, Working on the Highway — that will always sound best, heard in a crowded bar, your best girl sitting on your shoulders, beer held aloft. We got the roadhouse special on Friday. Up-tempo song followed up-tempo song, and we were on our feet. What a blast! About half way through the set, the end seemed inevitable — Rosie herself was going to come out tonight. And so it came to pass. As the set-piece finale of Tenth Avenue Freezeout came to a cataclysmic, banging finish, one look said that Bruce was not yet done. He prowled the catwalk, found the inevitable audience sign: Rosalita. So, 10 years after he broke the self-imposed, decade-long Rosalita drought at the power failure show, Rosie came out last Friday night. And the house erupted. It was a great end to a signal set of shows, that swept the repertoire and played on all our emotions, using his extraordinary powers as a performer, musician, band leader.

When the Sydney concerts were announced, it took me — oh, about 4 seconds, I guess — to know that I’d be going to as many shows as I could. When I got tickets to all three shows, I was astounded, excited. Reactions varied. Friends know my passion; the ex — who is a bigger tragic than I am — showed no surprise. After all, she had tix for all three as well. Other people had more varied reactions. Some were doubtful; some thought I was mad. After going to all three, I am SO grateful I splashed out. These are once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Never to be repeated. Maybe it’s a bit like train spotting to the outsider, but the minutiae of the changes from show to show fascinate, provide endless grounds for speculation. I LOVED being at all three. Tragic — that’s me. I’ll be feeling good for a few weeks, thanks for asking.

These shows were a Jamboree for the faithful — a communion of the First Church of Bruce. They were a rock and roll party; a rock and roll exorcism; a rock and roll bar mitzvah. They were wonderful; may they continue. The Chosen One looked out over his congregation, and saw that it was Good. Long may Bruce preside over his flock. Halleluiah. Amen.

Set lists

Monday 18 March 2012 — Tom Joad’s Goosebumps

American Land

Prove It All Night

Adam Raised a Cain (Sign Request)

Wrecking Ball

Death to My Hometown

Hungry Heart (Crowd Surf)

My City of Ruins

Spirit in the Night

High Hopes (The Havalinas cover)


Candy's Room

She's the One

Pay Me My Money Down

Shackled and Drawn

Waitin' on a Sunny Day

The Rising

The Ghost of Tom Joad



Thunder Road

Born to Run

Seven Nights to Rock (Moon Mullican cover)

Dancing in the Dark

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out


Wednesday 20 March 2012 — Wardrobe Malfunction

Devils & Dust (Solo Acoustic)

Last to Die (Tour Premiere)

The Ties That Bind

Darkness on the Edge of Town

Wrecking Ball

Death to My Hometown

Out in the Street (Crowd Surf)

Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?

The Promised Land (Sign Request)

Cover Me (Sign Request)

No Surrender (Sign Request)

I'm on Fire (Sign Request)

My City of Ruins

High Hopes (The Havalinas cover)

Because the Night

Open All Night

Shackled and Drawn

Waitin' on a Sunny Day

Lonesome Day

The Ghost of Tom Joad




Born to Run

Bobby Jean

Dancing in the Dark

Detroit Medley

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out


Friday 22 March 2012 — To the Roadhouse

We Take Care of Our Own

Wrecking Ball


Death to My Hometown

Hungry Heart (Crowd Surf)

My City of Ruins

Growin' Up (Sign request)

The E Street Shuffle

Prove It All Night (Sign request)

Trapped (Jimmy Cliff cover)(Sign request)

The River (Sign request)

Pay Me My Money Down

Working on the Highway

Darlington County

Shackled and Drawn

Waitin' on a Sunny Day


The Ghost of Tom Joad


Thunder Road


Born in the U.S.A. (E Street Band version)

Born to Run

Dancing in the Dark

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out

Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)



Saturday, 22 December 2012

David in the north

Finland 2012 Some short notes. Journalism is the first draft of history. This is a first draught. No serious editing beyond picking the most obvious typos. iPad autocorrect can be a pain in the arse.

 Saturday 15 December 2012

I'm here! Not sure where my luggage is. Late out of SYD; put into holding pattern before SIN. Had to run from arrival gate to departure gate. I made the flight but not my bag. A long process to report this to the service desk in HEL. Not the only one booked from SYD that went astray, apparently. Great flat - more later. Will be very comfy and a great base.

 The first touch of cold was as I left the terminal to get the bus into town. Unbelievably freezing. By the time I had crossed one road and walked a few metres my feet were freezing. It reminded me of my first blast of tropical heat, way back in 1985, when I walked off the plane, at Jackson's Airport in Port Moresby. That same kind of heavy punch. Fortunately I had taken my big new anorak as carry on, plus a few cold weather items - Helen's hat, gloves, scarf. I almost packed the anorak in my checked baggage, but decided to see if I could claim GST. So fortunately it was in my carry on. It is great and warm. Not so the RM Williams laughing sided boots. Warmth leaks out through the elastic sides and there is not enough tread on icy ground. Kept slipping. So went to by some new boots. The ones I really liked we're $stupid$ so I got a budget alternative that are fine. So now I have warm feet and not as much slipping.

 I went shopping at Stockmann, a huge department store. It reminded me of DJs in its heyday, before it was driven down market. Well staffed, well stocked. I really went in for a bit of spare underwear until baggage arrives. Plus boots. But the first thing I saw was a great coat. A goretex outer, but looks like a smooth cotton. Black. Beautifully cut. Bugatti. Long line. V smart. We fell in love straight away. Expensive, but I negotiated a 20% discount. I'm sure we are going to be very happy together. It's already apparent that several different weight of coat are practical. The Mountain Designs anorak is very warm, but too warm when inside. For around town, the Bugatti will be great.

A quiet night in and early to bed. Slept like a stone.

 Sunday 16 December, Helsinki

 Woke early, feeling odd after a long sleep. Still dark outside at 0700; by 0900 a bit lighter but not a lot. Still fascinated by little things - snow drifts that have buried parked cars, will need of be dug out. Watched a bloke spend 10 minutes brushing snow off car and scraping ice off windscreen before driving away. Hard to be quick or spontaneous. A brief step outside for a breath of fresh air before bed involved 5 minutes of dressing up ...

 A long meandering walk this morning into the city. Not always quite sure where I was but that's part if the fun in exploring a new city. It started off cold and got colder. A weather time sign at one stage said -5C. I suspect this is a new PB. Started snowing; got heavier. The snow was fine but the wind is biting. When it hits you in the face my teeth were aching. Yet to experience it so cold it hurts to breath, but aching teeth were notable!

 Shopping at Marimekko design heaven on Esplanadi - the main shopping area.

 Monday 17 December 2012

To city for cash, then sight seeing. Alvo Aaltar's 1962 academic bookshop building in the city centre. I loved the simple classic restraint of this building both inside and out, and the way it sits polite fully within the streetscape, undeniably modern, but not imposing on the older Jugenstil neighbours. Inside the walls are dressed with plain white marble. Like other modernist masterpieces the proportions on the facades are just right. I think this sense of proportion is what marks great Bauhaus - separates the best designs from the also rans.

I caught the metro one stop to Kamppi; as I exited from the station I looked down the hill and saw the Helsinki central station, where I got on, about 300 m away. Laugh! As I walked through Kamppi I realised I had walked parts of this the day before, on my long march. Had lunch at Ravintola (Restaurant) Martta, which is associated with a long-standing women's organisation dedicated to education for women. It was a friendly, informal neighbourhood bistro with a casual feel - the sense that some of the punters were regulars who had a daily lunch here. Delicious, cheap food. Serve yourself salads - beetroot, lentil, and cabbage salads, followed goose leg confit and rustic potatoes fries. Delicious. Cheap. Friendly. Good. Marimekko mugs at help yourself coffee station.

Wandering. Yet another Marimekko shop, in Kamppi. Thought about fabric for the drinks table. Unikko in different colour ways. Bought black leather gloves. Cool! Did NOT buy anything in Marimekko!

Tuesday 18 December

 Train 3+ hours to Imatra in Karelia. Dense forests all the way, and flat snow-covered areas I guess were lakes. Difficult terrane for the Winter War. Some delays in travel so by the time I finally got to Imatra it was latish and hungry. Delayed seeing rapids and dam until after lunch.

To the Buttenhoff - where a traditional Finnish Christmas lunch was available, as well as a la carte. I went for the trad christmas lunch, natch. Given the chill outside, the immediate offer of rum toddy on arrival was very gratefully received. Drank this as I settled down for a serious nosh. Buffet entrees of various cold fish dishes - smoked salmon mousse, gravlax, herrings with dill and onion, plus rare roast beef, spuds, a salmon pastry roll. All delicious. Bread is standard with these cold dishes, generally referred to as "salads". Followed by great mushroom soup. Rich with sliced mushrooms. Note to self - make this next winter. Great with rye bread. Mains was a "ham plate" or a "salmon plate". One or the other, served with mashed mixed veg. The ham was delicious. The mashed mixed veg was a huge mound of inderterminate origin - I suspect a lot of spuds and pumpkin(!), plus some greens? And huge amounts of butter. Seemed to be the kind of stodge you would need to hoe rows of cabbages in frozen ground as an east wind emerged from Siberia. Desert was delightfully simple - prunes in Madeira with chantilly cream. Then coffee left me in a lovely relaxed state. Plus more glühwein - glogi in Finnish.

Too late, too dark to see the rapids now. And not wanting to miss transport connections back to railway, so back I went, and onto the train home. So - you could say I travelled 3 hours each way just to eat lunch. Alternately, you could say that I saw a lot of eastern Finland, had a pleasant train trip, saw some sun for the first time in days, and enjoyed a good meal. Imatra has been a fashionable spa town since the days of Catherine the Great, who came here to see the rapids. Though these days there is little old and interesting in the bit that I saw - it all reminded me of Coffs Harbour. But with snow.

Region now dominated by hydroelectricity industry plus tourism in summer.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

To Fiskars village, west of Helsinki. A Finnish woman on the plane had recommended this destination and I'm glad I followed up. Fiskars is a small village that has been the site of an iron foundry since 1649. (As an Australian with a European heritage, just that date is mind blowing, coming just a short time after the first Dutch contact on Western Australia, and long before the First Fleet). Their was a short-lived iron mine here (BIF??), but later, iron ore was imported from Sweden. The site was attractive because of the good connections and the forests (presumably for charcoal for smelting). A whole iron-based industry developed, with fabricators, cutlers, etc. In the 1960s Fiskars designed scissors with bright orange handles - easily visible in the desk or drawer jumble - and they became world-famous. I got me some.

These days the iron works are gone and the town has reinvented itself as an artists and crafts venue. I looked in a bunch of shops which ran the usual gamut from twee and touristy, very LCD, through to some beautiful and stylish textiles, silver ware, and general design. There was a lovely woman running a gallery and we had a long conversation about design, and then I noticed her RM Williams boots, so we talked about them, and Australia. She seemed impressed that I recognised the boots immediately. I was impressed that a Finnish woman was wearing them ...

 Fiskars was enchanting - a small village, so far removed from the hustle and bustle of Helsinki. It was snowing gently most of the day, and the snow here was soft, pristine, white. Not the grey-beige hard-packed ice on the streets of Helsinki. I spent quite a while just wandering the village, looking in shops and around the streets. Astounded to see ducks swimming on the stream - that was flowing, not frozen. Thought they all flew south for winter ... Eventually, I decided to stay overnight in Fiskars as it was so delightful. The only pub in town was open, so I got a room. I was the only guest. A delightful night at the Fiskars Wardshus. The manager was a lovely woman who was pleased to hear I was Australian. As so often in travel, she has a daughter living in Adelaide - doing the whole young traveller thing. Mum misses her and worries she won't come back - daughter has met A Boy in Adelaide. Anyway, we talked a lot about Oz and the usual discussion about how far away it is. Australians seem aware of this and accept that travel means distance - especially to Europe - but on the other hand, Europeans just seem overwhelmed by the idea of going to Oz. I point out that the distance is the same for them as it is for us, but they don't have the mindset that such travel could be conceivable.

All this talk of travel, and the freewheeling, only partly planned activities over the last few days, have made me reflect on travel and how to do it. I realise that all my previous leisure travel overseas was with a former partner, and I think this is where I am now unlearning some habits. Her anxiety about so many things, including travel, really impacted how we travelled. The thought of doing things in a free and spontaneous manner like the last few days, was impossible. Contingencies had to be ready. Answered to when, where we would eat, sleep, what to see, required endless debate. And if something didn't go quite according to plan she became even more anxious and looked to me to make it "right" immediately, even if there was no solution ... The solo part of the trip to NYC started to show me that travelling without that constant stressor could be really interesting and delightful. So the question in my mind is - am I just a selfish bastard who is no good mixing with other people, or was it travelling with her constant anxiety that made travel at times such an ordeal? Certainly, I think on these solo jaunts how nice it would be to share with someone else. It would be great to travel with someone who was open to possibilities as they unfolded and didn't require a definite plan of everything before departure. These are important questions to contemplate if I am to seek a relationship. At the moment, I really think sharing the moments would be a lovely thing ...

Anyway - Fiskars. Dinner. More traditional Finnish ingredients but with a modFinn twist. Glogi to start with as a warmer upper. I am really enjoying this and see how essential mulled wine is in a cold climate. Then an amuse bouche- celerey& champagne soup - warm, intense, delicious. Soups fit into this climate as well. Salmon three ways - as a "salad"' which here seems to mean just about anything served cold - what I would call smoked salmon mousse, with dill mayo. Then salmon roe, simple, unadorned, delicious always. Then salmon "pastrami". Cured, with a herb crust. Delicious, delicate, subtle. Then reindeer fillet, seared & pan roasted to blue. Ideally cooked. Lean, gamey, good flavour. Reminded me of kangaroo, a bit. I think, like roo, it could get tough and dry if overlooked, but this was great. Served with a carrot purée (ho hum) and a chocolate sauce. Now this was interesting. Clearly inspired by chocolate molé of Mexico, it was rich, dark, intensely chocolatey, and not at all sweet. Finished with the pan juices to give it a taste of the reindeer. I liked this a lot. I should experiment on this with seared roo fillet. Desert was chocolate fondant. I know, two chocolate things. But I can't walk away from chocolate fondant ... And the Finnish element was more berries. Blackberries this time - as parfait, sorbet, syrup, and fresh berries. Yes, fresh. I'm sure these were not frozen. In the middle of winter. Fresh blackberries always remind me of days in the Adelaide Hills with very young Claire and Eleanor, picking them on searing January days, at Bernie Farrow's place. Such a change from snow-bound in Fiskars.

Thursday 20 December 2012

A day with lots of activity, so an early start. An impressive spread for breakfast. She had said "breakfast is included" and what a feast! Toast, pastries, yoghurt with blueberries, fruit, cold meats, cheese, salad, boiled egg. I could only scratch the surface. And all this just for me. I was made to think of the desultory effort at country motels in NSW at times. Little boxes of cornflakes. Blah blah.

So back to Helsinki and a quick pack for trip to Stockholm and Copenhagen. Excited. Overnight ferry ride. More anon.

The symbolic centre of Helsinki is the area adjacent to the harbour at senate square and the cathedral. The cathedral is a lovely domed baroque wedding cake confection in white, with blue domes. Sitting high, with imposing steps leading up to it. Immediately in front is a Christmas market with food and handcrafts for gift giving. Lots of interesting stuff, even if I was not in a position for buying some of the food stuffs. Chocolate coated fresh cranberries caught my eye, though, and fresh honey from Helsinki. I asked how bees cope with winter, but the language barrier prevented understanding. Clearly they do. A number of blacksmiths at work. I find this fascinating and would love to learn this craft, if I had time. I would like to make wrought iron stuff ...

Lunch was in a market tent, served by Santa Claus and Mrs Claus. Food from Lapland. After waking the market for a while, in steadily falling snow, I was FROZEN. Mr and Mrs Claus didn't seem to notice. Good Lapland stock, I guess. Lots of interesting food options. I had fried vendace - small fish, 2 - 4 cm long, deep fried whole, similar to whitebait. Delicious hot, in that fried, fishy, salty way, served with garlic sauce. They also had the ubiquitous salmon served several ways, but most interesting was with little potatoes balls. Looked like good warming food. And a bunch of different reindeer sausages. Served hot, including a a blood sausage. Will need to try these soon.

So, after more marketing and making myself sufficiently cold - I found a cafe with a window seat and a glorious view of the cathedral. A cuppa. And later some glogi. Delightfully warming. Travel in cold weather requires a different approach to things. Outdoor activities need to be interleaved with sitting in a pub or cafe with something warming in front of you. Alright by me. I find that I am enjoying the cold weather. Not, mind you, "being cold", but experiencing something so new to me is interesting. I don't know how I would feel if this was my lot; but I know a few weeks of this experience and then I will be back to the summer in Sydney, glad to have shared a northern winter. If I lived here full time I might have a different view. One thing - this trip has sparked an interest to see the north in summer - it must be unimaginably different to what I am experiencing now.

So down to the harbour, to my Stockholm ferry. Wonder again why checking in is so complicated for a plane, compared with checking in for a ship. My booking was in the system. No request for ID. A boarding pass/cabin key printed out. On I walked, and found my cabin. Simple. My cabin is the cheapest option in winter, when there are no deck seats sold. Lowest cabin deck (#2), below water line?, so we are expendable in a a titanic scenario, shared with 4. As it happens, only two others arrive. They spend the entire 11 hour trip sleeping; we have no contact.

The ship is pretty cool - plenty of dining options - and time passes quickly. Ice in the harbour as we pulled away, but most of the trip in darkness. In the morning, we pass between islands as the darkness slowly lifts, and we make the approach to Stockholm in mist and low overcast with snow.

Friday 21 December 2012

 It's 0645 and I have been awake for a while. Still pitch black outside but lots of lights - the approaches to Sweden are though an archipelago and we can see lots of small islands. It is delightful standing under cover on deck and watching the fall of snow. I find this entrancing in its soft, silent, gentle drifting movement - until the cold drives me in. I'm dying for a cuppa, but nothing open for a while yet. But the galley adjacent is emitting the smell of chorizo cooking. That would be great right now!

 At breakfast over a cuppa, I discover, again, the joy of reading. In the breakfast buffet are munkipossu. "Little pigs", they are a flat, Finnish jam-filled doughnut with a distinctive shape. Rectangular, with pinched out bits to make the pig's legs and snout. Even though I have never seen them, I recognise them immediately. All the coppers in the Helsinki detective fiction I have been reading eat these doughnuts, like cops all over the world. And I know about munkipossu through reading. I think that's cool!

Sunday, 30 September 2012

What to do with a leek ...

Professional Welshman and friends gooning with leeks on St David's day (1st March).

The greengrocer in my office block shops had leeks on special. Cheap. Not huge, but young and tender. I bought heaps. Then thought about what to do with them.

Your leek is a venerable veg, well-regarded in Mediaeval times.

The symbol of Wales, natch. So even the Welsh Guards regiment have a leek badge on their dress uniform. And, of course, the patron saint of Wales is Saint David, so I feel an immediate affinity with them.

The French, in their foppish manner, call them Poireaux.


But these are not to be confused with the Belgian Poirot, which is different ...

Leeks need to be washed very thoroughly they can be full of fine sand. Mine were no exception. I sliced them fnely and slowly sauteed them in some oil and butter. Then into a blind-baked pastry case with an egg, some grated cheese, and plenty of black pepper. Baked until golden brown, it was a delicious leek tart. With a salad, a great meal.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Summer's bounty

Late summer is a wonderful time for fresh produce – tomatoes, grapes, figs, apples – all the wonders of summer are at their best as summer rolls into autumn.

This summer has been odd, largely missing in action. Everyone knows that the weather patterns have been deranged by a CIA plot. They are testing a death ray in the skies over southeast Oz.

What we are getting of summer is now, finally, here at Easter time. So summer produce has been little and late.

I returned from Canberra last weekend with wonderful backyard produce from friends – eggs and tomatoes from Helen and Sean, and heady fresh basil; from Ali. Thank you all!

So, tonight, I made one of my favourite summer dishes – spaghetti al estate. Summer spaghetti. It’s so simple, capturing the natural flavour combination of really ripe tomatoes and basil. Peel and chop a few tomatoes, add some garlic, olives, capers, and basil, and let it sit and think for a few hours.

Serve over hot spaghetti. No need to cook! Light, delicious, and a touch of summer in a bowl.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

National Wog Day

Kitchen Stadium is full of late summer bounty - two big boxes
of sauce tomatoes. I love getting these in late February or March and cooking
them down to tomato sauce, to be kept for later. To bring a little touch of
sunshine to meals in the depths of winter.

Hands up if you remember “Looking for Alibrandi” – the Melina Marchetta novel that everyone was reading at high schools in the ‘90s. It became a film as well, with Greta Scacchi, Anthony La Paglia, and Pia Miranda. My clearest memory of that book was what they called “National Wog Day” – when the whole family got together to process and preserve the tomato crop. Well, I don’t have much Italian heritage (one great great grandmother), but it’s a tradition I like.

So, here I am on the last weekend in February, with two boxes of Roma tomatoes to convert into tomato passato. That’s 32 kg of tomatoes. Yikes! Better get on with it. At least, I know how to peel a tomato. After a while I have a regular production line going.

Cooked up with just some butter, oil, salt, pepper.

I have an ancient Mouli mill I bought for $1 decades ago from the Salvos at Tempe Tip, and it works a treat to pulp the toms and remove the seeds.

However, by National Wog day standards, it’s not entirely authentic. I’m not doing it in the backyard. I don’t have a line of nonne e zie helping to process the tomatoes. I haven’t improvised a vast Folwer’s Vacola from a 44 gallon drum with a fire underneath. And I’m not bottling them in recycled Resch’s Pilsener longnecks. But it is still fun, with a bunch of tomato passato to freeze as the reward

And, the next day, I found this online:

Clearly, I wasn’t the only one doing National Wog Day! Now,
for a plate of spaghetti al pomodoro ...