Returning to the Scene of our Times 1

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(The clearest map I could find is, not surprisingly, in German. They’re taking over)

The question is, can you go back? If you’ve had a sublime experience somewhere, what happens when you return? This is how it was for us.

In 1989, my wife of three years, our daughter of eighteen months and I migrated to the island of Mallorca. Migrated. That’s how we saw it. We weren’t running away, we were deliberately turning our backs on what we saw as a dull and bland country.

There were other reasons, but I won’t go into them here. Enough to say that we were over the country of our birth, and I persuaded De (my wife) that a fresh start in the country with which I’d conducted a long term love affair (and many short term love affairs) was our best bet for a future. She didn’t need much persuading. She too had fallen in love with Spain, the island of Mallorca and the house I’d bought there long before we were married when I took her there for our honeymoon.

The island of Mallorca is much maligned. In England it is a joke. Somewhere to go to take a holiday from the bad English weather, to lie on the beach and drink too much every night. To arrive home sunburnt and not quite knowing where you’ve been. I’m pretty sure that many English tourists don’t even know that it’s a part of Spain.

But to damn the entire island for that would be like damning Queensland because of the Gold Coast. There is much more. Take our little corner, the northwest, the largest town there, Soller (pronounced Sol-yeah).

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‘We’ll go to Soller — Papa always says it is the finest place on earth,’ said a child character in Loup Durand’s novel Daddy. Those who know it well wouldn’t argue.

The little city of Soller could have been used to illustrate the assertion by historian Fernand Braudel that ‘the Mediterranean is a …sea ringed by mountains.’ Those mountains certainly shaped Soller and the Soller Valley by guaranteeing insulation from the rest of the world. Soller and its port, before the advent of buses and trucks, before the tunnel, offered the easiest access to the markets of southern France for the produce of the Soller Valley, mainly oranges, olives and olive oil. Little ships would cross from the port to Marseilles, and with them generations of Sollerenses (as the natives are called) with two results. One, there were and are many families from the valley in Southern France, many in the produce trade, and two, French is the second language — after Mallorquin — of many Sollerenses.

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And above Soller, the village where once we owned a house, Fornalutx, a village of some 400 inhabitants which swells to at least twice that in the summer. A cosy blanket of a village with its mix of nationalities, still predominantly Mallorquin, but with an increasing number of Germans and a small handful, when we lived there, of Australians, English, Swedes and Spaniards from the mainland: a very different lot from the locals.

The honey–coloured stone cottages of Fornalutx – some of them, like the one I bought, 700 years old – tumble down the hillside which leads eventually to the Tramuntana, the mountain range that forms the north western spine of the Island whose peaks are covered in snow in Winter. So hilly is it that there is still work for a man with a donkey to lug building materials up the steep paths no mechanical workhorse can handle.

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Two crops still dominate the valley, oranges and olives. The orange groves lower down on the valley floor, the olives growing up and down the hillsides, planted on dry stone terraces, a feat of man-made engineering (they encircle the island) often compared to the pyramids. Their construction points to them having been built by Arab and Berber settlers in the tenth century.

So there we were, fresh from the cutthroat world of advertising (literally in my case, cutthroat I mean) and the ‘open all hours everything on tap’ life of a big city plonked, after considerable difficulty with customs, in my funny old house in a tiny village on a mountainside, with a wife who didn’t speak the language and an infant daughter who had been ripped from her home. What could possibly go wrong? Well, over time, everything. ‘ I Pity the poor immigrant’, wrote Dylan, ‘Who wishes he would’ve stayed home’ he added. Eventually, we didn’t.

It took six months to adjust. Six months during which there were tears, fights, and a real danger of the marriage breaking down. I don’t know about the experiences of other migrants, but I would assume not much different. And we had it a lot easier. We weren’t entirely stranded. I had friends I had made over the years. There were other English speakers, and I had some Spanish. Gradually, we settled into what we (De and I) agree were the best three and a half years of our lives. Curiously, our daughter Laura who was four and a half when we left, and who was fluent in Spanish and Mallorquin by then, remembers virtually nothing of that time.

Even my own memories are vague and selective. I remember people, I remember incidents, but as I read through my old diaries, I am surprised by how much of what were obviously important events and people with whom I was close I have completely forgotten. Entries like ‘Gerald to dinner. Religious waffle.’ Who was Gerald? What religious waffle?

But also, reading through those diaries, I’m reminded of the intensity, richness and variety of our lives. There, as here, the life of a writer is essentially sitting all day in front of a machine, and squeezing words and sentences and chapters and stories from the brain. But there, surrounding the hours spent at the machine we fostered deep and abiding friendships with people we could never have met in Australia (the poet Paul Roche, the illustrator Paul Hogarth, the painter George Sheridan among many), were intertwined with our community in ways in which I certainly never had been in Sydney. When it was all over I realised that we had spent a good twenty per cent of our time working for that community in various ways.

But in spite of that, and tending to our almond trees and planting a flourishing garden, I finished (and sold) my first novel and began and almost finished a second (also later sold). We left, not because we wanted to but because we had to. With heavy hearts.

 

Moorish Spain, 711-1492. Christians, Jews and Muslims living together.

Moorish Spain, 711-1492. Christians, Jews and Muslims living together.

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(The flag of the Nasrid Dynasty, the last to rule in Moorish Spain)

In 711, not 90 years after the birth of Islam, black clad Berber tribesman and their Arab allies crossed what are now called the Straits of Gibraltar from North Africa to the Iberian peninsula with their wiry horses, and galloped north, conquering all before them, destroying the decadent Visigothic rulers and laid the foundations for modern day Spain.

They called it Al Andalus, and it began as it was to continue for the over 300 years of the first Umayyad dynasty, with tolerance for the other ‘people of the book’ as they called the Christians and Jews they found there.

But the hero of this story, a hero who deserves his own epic film, is the adventurer and statesman, Abd al-Rahman, the Falcon of Al Andalus.

Abd al-Rahman’s family, the ruling Umayyads, were slaughtered by their rivals, the Abassids in Damascus in 750.

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He and his brother Yahiya, his son Suleyman and his Greek servant, Bedr, escaped and found refuge in a village on the banks of the Euphrates on the edge of a deep forest.

But the Abassid troops found them and they dived into the Euphrates. Al-Rahman, a strong swimmer, held onto his son. Together with Bedr, these three made it to the opposite bank. But not so Yahiya. Here, in al-Rahman’s own words, is what happened:

“No sooner had I set my feet on the shore, than I began anxiously to look about for my brother, whom I saw in the hands of the soldiers, and whom I expected every moment to see put to death. I was not mistaken ……having dragged him to a spot not far from the river, they beheaded him and marched triumphantly away with his head. My brother was then thirteen years old.”

After five years of adventure, intrigue and wandering from refuge to refuge, and the prophesy of a Jewish seer that he ‘shall in time become a great conqueror’ and that ‘he shall found in Andalus an empire for him and his posterity’ he crossed, with his son and servant into Andalus.

There, employing a combination of guile and diplomacy, he eventually became Abd al-Rahman I, the Emir of Cordóba, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty which, over the next 300 years, would transform the Caliphate of Cordóba into a world centre of scientific, philosophical and agricultural innovation and attainment, a beacon for musicians, poets and writers in the Muslim and Jewish worlds.

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(The Great Mosque of Cordóba, begun  by Abd ar-Rahman I

Cordóba was, at that time, the shaft of light cutting through what in the West were called the Dark Ages. All this was possible because these desert Arabs, the Umayyads, in conquering the peoples of the Iberian peninsula, had been confronted with a universe of languages, cultures and peoples.

Their response was to define their version of Islam as one that rejoiced in dialogues with other traditions, other cultures, and other religions. This was an Islam that translated the long forgotten Greek philosophers into Arabic, and appointed Jews as advisers.

The Jews, especially, flourished at this time, the two languages, Hebrew and Arabic the dominant ones in the land. Latin was abandoned by ambitious young Christians who flocked to learn the far more sinuous and poetic Arabic, much to the dismay of their Bishops.

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(The Santa Maria La Blanca Syngogue, also built in the Moorish (or Mudéjar) style)

The arrival of these new settlers also brought about a green revolution in Spain, a revolution which ran on water: these desert dwellers were geniuses at irrigating crops and filling their fragrant gardens with the sound of running water.

They brought with them oranges, lemons, limes, apricots, and bananas, rice from Asia, sugarcane from India – some say they invented caramel, in Arabic kurst al milh.

New vegetable crops planted were artichokes, aubergines, celery, spinach, and carrots. Most important of all, hard durum wheat. Did the Arabs invent dried pasta, which can only be made with this hard wheat? One of the first mentions of dried pasta dates from the twelfth century and the Arab geographer Al-Idrisi, who wrote that it was being manufactured in Sicily – by Arabs.

The usual diet for rulers and commoners alike in Christian Spain was based on the trilogy of meat, wheat, and wine. Arabs were accustomed to a more sensuous mix of fruit, vegetables, and legumes, a cuisine low in animal protein. But at banquets roast lamb was often served, stuffed with chopped meats fried in sesame oil, with crushed pistachios, pepper, ginger, cloves, mastic, coriander, cardamom and other spices, sprinkled with musk-infused rose water. It was not only their language that was more appealing. Life, generally and food specifically was more luxurious, more pleasurable.

And Al-Andalus soon filled with luxuriant flower gardens, planted with ornamentals imported from the Orient: tulips from Turkey, narcissi, lilacs, yellow and white jasmine and roses from China arranged along walkways under canopies of orange trees and sweet-scented almonds and everywhere, the cooling sound and sight of running water.

Cordóba became the urban garden centre of all Spain, if not the world, with an estimated fifty thousand private gardens gracing the villas of that city at the time it was recaptured by Christians in 1236.

Living in Mallorca in the early 1970s, I met a man who claimed to have travelled through time and offered to teach me the technique. Not your usual nutter, Ben Wright was a poet who also lectured on the Nordic Saga Beowulf. He claimed that another resident of our village, the English poet Robert Graves, had also time travelled to write the I Claudius series of books. I declined his invitation because back then, there was then no other time I wanted to visit. If offered that chance again today, I would happily travel back to that golden period of Moorish Spain.

But this year you can come with me and explore the material and culinary remnants of this remarkable period. I will be conducting a tour of Andalucia in October: Moorish Spain: Architecture, Culture and Cuisine.

It will follow the route of the caliphates and will visit out of the way villages (including the only Jewish city in Moorish Spain) and explore the Islamic, Jewish and Christian legacy of that time in such world heritage buildings as the church of San Simón in Toledo, the Alhambra in Granada, the Mesquita and the Madinat al-Zahra in Córdoba.

The food chosen for this tour will explore Moorish, Sephardic Jewish and Spanish culinary traditions. There will also be a tasting of the wines of the little known (outside Spain) region of Montilla-Moriles where winemaking practices date back to the 8th Century.

To find out more about this tour, go to: www.travelyourway.com.au

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(The Church of San Román, built as a Christian church but in the Mudéjar style partly Gothic partly Moorish)

 

 

What is or was Mod Oz? A love-song to our mongrel selves

 

images-4It turned up like a surprise guest at a dinner party. It was analysed and codified and even taught. And then, bam, it was dumped. But it refuses to die. Type Modern Australian Cuisine into your favourite search engine, and you’ll get around 1.25 million results.

So what is this strange animal that everyone knows but no one can define? Is it just something that we love to argue about? Food historian Ken Albala writes in Food Cultures of the World: ‘…the slippery nature of food and eating in Australia and the debate itself, probably is the essence of Australian food culture.’ But it’s more than an argument. Its trajectory can be tracked. And for that we’re going to need to look at a little Australian food history.

Incidentally, in this piece, I’m not going to talk about Australian native produce. Needless to say, we virtually ignored it for over 230 years. If you want to read that story, read my book The Oldest foods on Earth.

Until the end of the Second World War, what we ate, with a few exceptions, was Anglo- Celtic food. And then between 1950 and 1970 one and a half million ‘New Australians’ landed, bringing with them their recipes their ingredients and their food cultures. At first we grumbled about them and ignored their food. (For a history of that process read my book Wogfood)

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But it was what happened next that changed what we put on our plates. Between June 1960 and June 1970, we got richer. Our disposable income rose by 700 per cent. That coincided with the arrival of the Boeing 747-238B ­– the Jumbo Jet – in 1971. Everybody who could afford to, and in 1974 that was around 770,000 of us (a figure that shot up to 1.4 million in 1984) took off to see and taste the world.

When we came home, we’d eaten something more than steak and eggs, and washed down our meals with wine instead of beer. Now we understood what our new neighbours had been eating and drinking. And we wanted some.

 

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This hunger for new kinds of food spawned a restaurant boom. In September 1970, The Sydney Morning Herald published a story by Margaret Jones, ‘The Dining Out Boom.’ It is, Jones ‘probably the biggest thing which has happened to Australia recently outside uranium shares.’ So we began eating out at the new restaurants that were springing up like mushrooms after a rainstorm. And if we needed help in choosing, it arrived in 1974 with the first edition of Leo Schofield’s Eating Out in Sydney and then in 1980 with The Age Good Food Guide, followed by the Sydney Morning Herald version – edited by Schofield – in 1984.

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If Australians took off to see the world in the 1970s by the 1980s they wanted to conquer it. It was the decade that our much admired egalitarianism gave way to nationalism. We elected the Silver Bodgie – Bob Hawke – as prime minister in 1982, and in 1983 we won the America’s Cup. Our business entrepreneurs, including Cup winner Alan Bond along with others like Christopher Skase soared like eagles before plummeting like Icarus. But while they soared, our national pride knew no bounds. We had to have it all. And that included a national cuisine.

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At the time, a young Neil Perry was at Bluewater Grill.The 1988 Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide called his food ‘a more modern kind of food, somewhat Californian in style, involving lots of grilling and a slew of oriental influences.’

imgresThis is a close description of the cuisine was busy being born. And its birthplace was in the newly minted food guides. Although the phrase first appeared in the 1985/86 edition, the style wasn’t officially christened until 1994, in the last edition of the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide to be edited by Leo Schofield and Michael Dowe when it was given a category of its own in the index. Melbourne had to wait until 2003. So there it was. Whatever it was.

In 1994 it was codified and then taught at TAFE colleges around NSW under the name of ‘Australian Contemporary Cuisine’. Just six years later, a victim of politics, it was dumped from the curriculum. It got worse. In 2006 it disappeared as a category from the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide because, according to Simon Thomsen, editor at the time, “Modern Australian didn’t seem to me, I recall, to mean that much in the sense that it was being used in the Guide for so many different cooking styles.” The following year it was dumped equally unceremoniously from The Age Good Food Guide.

So what is or was Mod Oz. Australian academic and writer Ghassan Hage wrote:

‘For let there be no mistake. Australia’s future culture will be plural. And there is no other way forward but to think about how all of us can learn to embrace its plurality.’

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And that is why it is futile to search for an Australian cuisine, or Modern Australian cuisine. As our best chefs are showing us daily, we have a multiplicity of cuisines, just as we have a multiplicity of cultures. To search for a defining Australian culture or a definition of Australian culture amongst the clamour of competing tongues, ways of life, ways of worshipping, eating, living and seeing in an increasingly globalised world is regressive. To be Australian is to be multicultural and multiculinary.

In an essay in The Monthly called ‘Does Writing Matter?’, Richard Flanagan comes to the same conclusion for literature.

‘There isn’t and there doesn’t have to be a single united national project linking Benjamin Law to Tim Winton, that seeks resonances between Helen Garner and Omar Musa, that demands continuities between John Coetzee and Alexis Wright.’

French food historian Jean-Francoise Revel makes the same argument: ‘there are no national cuisines…The basic unit in gastronomy is the region, not the nation.’

But if I have to define Australian cuisine, the common element that links all our great chefs, from Peter Gilmore to David Thompson, from Kylie Kwong to Tony Bilson, I’ll quote another writer. In Imaginary Homelands Salman Rushdie writes of his book, Satanic Verses that it:

‘…rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotch-potch, a bit of this and that, is how newness enters the worldchange-by-fusion, change-by-co-joining. It is a love-song to our mongrel selves…Perhaps we are all, black, brown and white, leaking into one another, as a character of mine once said, like flavours when you cook [my italics].’

This is a fine definition of what the best Australian chefs are doing. Australian food is, as Rushdie writes of his book, ‘a love-song to our mongrel selves’, flavours, ingredients and origins leaking into one another.

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Stands to reasons. We are mongrels and therefore so is our cuisine. Or so are our cuisines.

Finally, a definition that raises more questions than it answers. In his foreword to Australian food: in celebration of the new Australian cuisine, philosopher gastronome the late Alan Saunders wrote ‘The flavour of Australia is the flavour of change, adaptation and – in the very best sense of the word – compromise.’

Compromise? Between what and what? Between 200 years of sticking to a boring Anglo-Celtic diet, and the late flowering, cultured culinary imagination of a generation of chefs set free to roam the world of techniques and ingredients and plunder mercilessly, like gastronomic pirates. Between the two, the shadow of truly modern Australian cuisine (no capitals), set free from all the restrictions of the past.

So what is modern Australian cuisine? Simple. Anything we bloody say it is. You got a problem with that?

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SOME OF THE INGREDIENTS

A list of ingredients culled from dishes on the restaurant menus of thirteen of Australia’s most adventurous chefs: organic Korean green rice, silken tofu, garam masala, aerated passion fruit, paper bark, foie gras, red cabbage granita, sangria jelly, Camargue organic red rice, mojama, kim chi, wallaby, Pedro Ximénez prunes and forbidden rice.

Bear in mind this eclectic list, which includes some indigenous ingredients, is used by chefs in a country that, until even thirty years ago, was suspicious of the use of garlic.

THE CUISINES

 The relevant modules in the curriculum of the now defunct Australian Contemporary Cuisine Course devised by an industry panel (disclosure: I was a member of that panel)

 

 

Malay, Nonya & Indonesian Skills

Japanese Skills in Australian Cookery

Native Australian Cookery

Indian Skills in Australian Cookery

Guangdong Skills in Australian Cookery

Thai Skills in Australian Cookery

Italian Skills in Australian cookery

French Skills in Australian Cookery

Middle Eastern Skills in Australian Cookery

 

There are many more skill modules than that. But those are the cuisines that the panel  agreed t the time were at the core of modern Australian restaurant food. I must admit I do like the term Australian Cookery.

 

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