Singapore: Tiong Bahru and time for tea

Imagine a world where scramjets (supersonic-combustion ramjets) travelling faster than the speed of sound could transport us from Melbourne to London in two and a half hours. While this may sound like something out of a sci-fi novel, a joint US-Australian research team has been running trials and recently sent a scramjet attached to a rocket booster to an altitude of 278km at seven times the speed of sound. But the reality is that until rocket-propelled hypersonic travel becomes practical and affordable, travel between Australia and Europe will remain L O N G haul.

That’s why I stopped off in Singapore for a night on my way back from Oslo in August. I’d had a somewhat mixed time in Oslo; some fabulous sights and museums – Viking ships, Edvard Munch and the Vigeland Sculpture Park – but didn’t connect with the locals, couldn’t get a decent cuppa of tea (I know, how very English of me), or enjoy the hotel that was Grim by name and by nature (you couldn’t tell if it was night or day in there). So I was ready for a softer experience to bookend my travels and set me up for returning to Melbourne.

I stayed at the Nostalgia Hotel in the suburb of Tiong Bahru, about a ten-minute taxi ride from the CBD. And what a find! I’ve stayed a couple of times in a fancy hotel in the centre of Singapore with all the city slicker and business suits, where everything is seemingly on tap at all hours, even a pillow menu, which is fun in its way but very impersonal. On arrival at the Nostalgia Hotel, I felt as if I were visiting family, such was the warmth of the welcome by the lady on reception, looking immaculate in her red silk cheongsam. She helped me to my room where, dear reader, I immediately spotted the kettle and made a cup of Earl Grey. No such luxuries at the much more expensive Grims Grenka in Oslo where you could only make an approximation of a cup of tea by blending hot water and frothy milk in a cardboard cup at the coffee machine next to the reception desk.

My room at The Nostalgia

My room at The Nostalgia

Tiong Bahru is small, compact, easy-going and away from the hustle and bustle of the CBD, making it a delightful area to explore. Built in the 1930s and 50s, it was the country’s first public housing project and is a living, breathing suburb where people work, play and hang out at the hawker market.

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Much like the décor in the charming Hotel Nostalgia, which blends old and new, Tiong Bahru is an interesting mix of tradition and trendiness with the French-inspired Tiong Bahru Bakery and other cafés selling cupcakes and sandwiches cheek by jowl with restaurants full of people slurping noodles or sitting down to seafood banquets at wipe-down plastic tables. Then there’s pampered pet parlours, design shops and expensive florists selling terrariums and bonsai alongside shrines wafting incense from doorways.

The Tiong Bahru Bakery

The Tiong Bahru Bakery

After a pleasant swim in the hotel’s lap pool (again, nothing fancy, but I had the pool to myself and views over red tile rooftops), I enjoyed a comfort food dinner of Hainanese Chicken Rice at the Tiong Bahru Club, another vintage venue with wooden ceiling fans and school desks and chairs. That night I slept like a baby – always such joy to be in a bed after a night on the plane – ready to tackle the shops the next morning.

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I went straight to Uni Qlo in the nearby Tiong Bahru Plaza, where I made the most of various items on sale – including a liberty print top – and the tax free rebate. Then, after a quick lunch of sushi in the shopping mall, I took a bus to Orchard Road. I didn’t have the right change and was fumbling about in my purse – so much so that I managed to drop my left luggage ticket from the hotel into the cash box – when three dear ladies, all of a certain age, came to my aid, one of them offering to pay for me. The bus driver, amused at my luggage ticket sitting in his cash machine, told me not to worry about the fare. How welcoming and generous these people were and how different from the reserved (sometimes frosty) Norwegians.

Orchard Road was, as ever, heaving with shoppers. It’s not really my kind of place, but hey, when in Singapore… So I went to just three shops: Marks & Spencer (well, like drinking tea, it’s in the blood), a shoe shop and a small local department store that was easy to navigate called Tangs. At about 4pm as I was trying on the umpteenth dress, jet-lag began to kick in and I started to flag. Luckily, there was a café right in the middle of the ladies’ dress department at Tangs. The Provedore is the kind of place patronised by ladies who lunch and have expensive shoes, handbags and haircuts. Feeling scruffy by comparison, I was nevertheless happy to sit down and I ordered a pot of Earl Grey Jasmine.

In contrast to all the lukewarm mugs of water with a tea bag on the side that I got served up in Oslo, the hot tea, properly steeped and in a pot, was cause for celebration. I couldn’t detect any Earl Grey but the jasmine was suitably floral. And all was well in my world. Then I got the bill and my jaw dropped open – it was $11.20 (so, about AUD 11). That seemed very steep if you’ll forgive the pun. That’s the kind of price you would expect at somewhere like the Ritz! Later on before I got a cab to the airport I had a quick dinner of fish with ginger sauce and a bottle of water for $22. Needless to say, there were no lunching ladies there just locals dining at no-nonsense white plastic tables.

The steepest cuppa ever!

The steepest cuppa ever!

Airbnb hosting – I’ve had a gut full

I recently read an article about people in the over 60s age bracket making a bit of extra retirement income through Airbnb hosting. The article instanced a couple in WA who were waxing lyrical about sharing their 12-acre property with their guests, who are housed in a small cottage next to the main house and enjoy lots of home comforts and perks such as freshly laid eggs for breakfast. Sounds blissful doesn’t it? Arm’s length hosting must be very cruisy, but what about those of us who are sharing our space with our guests?

When I started offering my spare room on Airbnb in December 2015, my first guests were two Italian girls. They arrived in the middle of the night and continued to keep Night Owl hours throughout their stay, often snagging me in long conversations and tourist map reading sessions at 11 p.m. at night, all the while boiling up their pasta and frying steaks. One night I lay awake worried that they had missed the last train – they had – and on another occasion they walked round the house at 1 a.m. talking animatedly on Skype with their relatives back home.

Then there was the young French guy who I almost gave up for dead when he failed to emerge from his room until 7 o’clock at night. His mother (an Airbnb host herself), who had made the booking, sent me a flurry of texts in French shortly before he arrived asking me if I knew of a chiropractor as he had a trapped nerve in his shoulder. He arrived mid-afternoon and went straight to sleep. I then drove him to the appointment, and afterwards he took the train to the CBD and stayed out, so he told me in his three waking hours the next day, until 5 a.m. Although he smoked outside, it took me several days and scented candles to get rid of the smell of cheap aftershave from his room.

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My second guests were a delightful American couple who were riding round Australia on a custom-made tandem bicycle. We all got on fine and I didn’t mind them using the kitchen or Dan watching TV into the wee small hours, but I had to smile when they ate their toast, jam and peanut butter on pieces of kitchen paper rather than on plates.

By contrast, the very friendly Malaysian mother and son pretty much used my place as a dormitory. They may have put a carton of milk in the fridge but were otherwise out from about 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Perfect! But lovely as they were, they left the bathroom floor awash, their room stank, really stank, of tiger balm when they left (emptying the bin I could see his mother was taking medication for osteoarthritis), and I also discovered dark purple henna stains on the carpet. Luckily my solution dyed nylon carpet is very forgiving when it comes to stains.

What and how guests eat can be quite revealing. A Chinese mother and her 14-year-old son, who stayed recently seemed to be at a loss when it came to breakfast time. I don’t offer breakfast unless guests request it, but Jane’s English was pretty patchy so maybe she had misunderstood. I zoomed into action and put some banana loaf and scones to heat in the oven. But as they were heating up, Jane remembered she had provisions and came back clutching some stale bread rolls she had bought in transit in Hong Kong. She eschewed my offer of butter and jam and stuffed down the bread with gulps of milk. The son then yawned his way into the kitchen nibbling on a skewer of congealed meat. It turned out that the pork skewer also originated in Hong Kong. Amazed that the meat had not been detected by customs, I calculated that it was at least 36 hours’ old (they had arrived in Melbourne at 6.25 a.m. the previous morning) and had been out of the refrigerator all that time. Needless to say the child had a stomach upset the next day.

But my most recent guests – a couple of 20-something Japanese girls – really do take the biscuit(s) when it comes to culinary quirkiness and kitchen aggravation. They only ate out one night in six. From fried fish to home-made beefburgers and stir-fries, they seemed to be at the stove morning and night, using metal implements in my non-stick pans and washing up under a cold running tap. My tension levels rose and I could feel my jaw clenching every time they came back bearing heavy bags of groceries. Oh no! Not ANOTHER cook-up?! Like a guest in my own house, one night I asked to use the kitchen first so they started to wash the rice in their bathroom to speed things up. Later on they let the rice burn dry and the whole house smelt of charred rice. Never mind, they were going to the Great Ocean Road the next day and I would have the house to myself. So I thought. But they didn’t leave till 10.30 a.m. as they were busy boiling up more rice to make sushi which they filled with spam. Spam sushi?!!

I was out on their last night but got back in time to find them frying up a bit of leftover spam. Euphoric at the prospect of them leaving the following morning, I shared with them the Monty Python spam sketch on YouTube and taught them to sing Spam, Spam, Spam. I put all the pans away before I went to bed and left them scouring the burnt rice pan with a steel wool sponge.

But when I got back from walking Bertie on the beach the next morning, they were back at the stove again, frying up MORE spam, boiling eggs (the replacement eggs they had bought me) and making toast. Then, to my amazement, one of the girls, Hiro, went into the freezer and put a huge dollop of salted caramel ice cream (I had offered them ice cream the first night) on top of a piece of toast. Spam, eggs, cashew nuts, spinach and ice cream all on one plate. Then, as they were getting ready to leave, they asked if they could take the biscuits I had put in their room, container and all. Noticing that they had snaffled all the tea bags too, I wrapped the biscuits in cling film and handed them over. Anything to get them out the door. It really does take all sorts to make a world.

Spam, spam, spam

Spam, spam, spam


Spot  the  toast topped with ice cream!

Spot the toast topped with ice cream!

I’m proud to be a 41-percenter

Lists, lists, lists, lists/ lists, lists, lists, lists/ LISTS….. (to the tune of Monty Python’s Spam, Spam, Spam). I love a good list and get immense satisfaction when I achieve and complete a job or chore. I used to try and wean myself off my inner list-ticker but now I’ve decided to embrace and celebrate it.

My notebooks are never this empty...

My notebooks are never this empty…

Some so-called leadership experts (if you believe the Sunday papers) claim that to-do lists are a no-no and can make you more stressed. Studies have shown that only 41 per cent of professionals who write lists actually complete the tasks. I clearly fall into this bracket. But I don’t just make lists for work, I write lists for everything even when I’m on holidays. I like to get things done and make the most of my time whatever I am doing. In some ways I’m a woman on a mission to squeeze the maximum out of life. By working through my to-do lists, I reckon – perhaps kid myself – that I make more time for new experiences and adventures.

Talking of adventure, I recently had an Out of Africa moment or three at the Fundraising Institute of Australia’s annual conference, which, this year, was in Melbourne. I work for a fundraising consultancy that assists not-for-profit organisations to develop effective grant-seeking strategies. Our theme this year was: ‘It’s a jungle out there and we can help you get out of it.’ With a foliage-draped stand dotted with blow-up zebras and monkeys, we donned pith helmets (sourced on-line from the UK; perhaps not surprising given Blighty’s colonial past), leopard print scarves and khaki jackets. It was a whirlwind of networking, meetings, exchanged business cards, chats, dinners, drinks, lots of business development and regular injections of caffeine. It was exhausting being ‘on’ for the best part of three days but we had a lot of fun.

Out of Africa...

Out of Africa…

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Post conference our workloads have trebled and it’s still go-go-go. That’s why I’m so happy I embarked on a list-a-thon during February. I wanted to clear not just my desk but the decks in general – I’d had a whole load of chores building up and hanging over me since Christmas. I slashed and burned my way through my lists and lists of lists of lists every weekend for a month. I tackled the front garden by my carport and replaced a weed suppression mat covered with dusty old stones and shells with new soil and plants. I weeded and pruned my courtyard at the back, moved pots around, transplanted cuttings from a hardy geranium grown eleven years ago from a cutting taken in Country Victoria and scrubbed paint splotches off my garden table. On behalf of the Body Corporate, I finalised negotiations with fence contractors and tree removalists, did the minutes and the accounts, the latter badly as I am no mathematician, and organised for a new fence to be erected.

I replaced saggy cushions on my newly-acquired op shop sofa with firmer foam inserts that didn’t leave bottom-shaped hollows. The only problem was that the guy in the shop measured the new cushions against the old ones which cascaded over the edge of the sofa. As a result, they stuck right out like a ledge and my feet barely reached the ground. Off I went straight back to Clark Rubber to get them trimmed, problem solved. I also replaced my old office desk with a state-of-the-art electronic height-adjustable desk. My brother, who happens to live next door to a guy who runs an office furniture outfit, got me a fabulous deal. While I don’t stand for more than about 30 minutes at a time, it does relieve the pressure on my lower back and keep me energised. Another of my back saving strategies is to swap my chair for a Swiss Ball here and there as it (apparently) helps to engage my core muscles – and that’s de rigueur nowadays, so the gurus tell us, if we want to stay fit and healthy, that and the consumption of chia seeds, pomegranates and kale. The change of desk brought on an office spring clean and general tidy-up. I threw out lots of old paperwork, tied up all my phone and appliance leads with cable ties and made the room feel more spacious. My old desk is in my carport awaiting collection by the Salvos. Another tick!

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Once my desk and office were sorted, it was time to tackle the paperwork and I did so with a vengeance. All that getting up and sitting down and circling my pelvis on the Swiss ball clearly put fire in my belly. I started by changing bank and credit card. The process wasn’t as complicated as I thought, thanks to my lists of course, but time will tell if I managed to successfully swap over all the direct debits, standing orders, on-line accounts and other payments. Then I had to do my tax return. Technically, it wasn’t due till May but the ATO thought I owed them money (for reasons I won’t bore you with) so I had to get it done. Lots of phone calls, scanned documents and spreadsheets later, the matter was all settled. I also had to call my health insurance provider about some back claims and make some on-line purchases, cashing in a Marks and Spencer voucher for me and then ordering a replacement dog training whistle for Bert. I can’t think where or how I lost the old one, but my voice just doesn’t carry over the wind and waves at the beach so a new one is essential. I could have ordered a cheapo pack of children’s party whistles from China but thought better of it and ordered a couple of shepherd’s whistles instead. When I came to phone through my credit card details, I found myself talking to a delightful woman in Inveraray on the West Coast of Scotland. We had a lovely chat – lists can you take you interesting places.

My kitchen was also in need of a bit of life laundry. First, I bagged up some surplus dry food items and tins and took them to a drop-off place for asylum seekers, then I sorted a large pile of recipes torn out of magazines and newspapers and filed them, at the same time banning myself from looking at any more recipes for at least a year. Needless to say, I did have a recipe relapse the weekend before last when I took a photo of a delicious-sounding chicken salad in Sunday Life. Leopards and spots…

Another task that I’d been putting off since I got my new job in October was to transfer all my photos, files and music from my old to my new computer. I’ve now moved them over but haven’t organised the photos, which somehow seem to have duplicated themselves into copies and copies of copies. Getting round to sorting out the photos keeps dropping to the bottom of the list along with doing my stretches, shredding old paperwork and cleaning Bertie’s teeth (he swallows rather than chews his food so gets plaque build-up).

I may sound like I’m incredibly organized, and in some ways I am, but don’t be fooled, I can also be chaotic and absent-minded with too many things on the go. But a bit of chaos and unpredictability is good and healthy. Too much listing, doing and thinking kills off spontaneity and bombards the brain with too much activity. How about you? Which of you are go-with-the-flow types and which of you are more plan and list-driven?

Needless to say I never arrive at the Nirvana-like state of being list-less, but after a blitz, the lists tend to plateau out and it’s easier to tackle the day job and to keep the rest of the time free for fun, creativity and socialising. In April I’m signed up to go to Mud Island off Sorrento on a bird-watching trip. It promises to be wet, muddy and full of fabulous waders and wetland birds. Well, I hope I get to go, I am on a wait LIST!

Chocolate, choc-a-bloc living and computerised cleaning

On Saturday afternoon I found myself grating chocolate – a jaw-clenchingly fiddly activity – for a chocolate pâté I was making. Yes, you read that correctly; chocolate pâté. It was an everything-free recipe (as in no gluten, refined sugar or dairy) I had cut out of a magazine over a year ago. Made in a loaf tin from a mixture of organic cacao powder, walnuts (soaked overnight to remove enzyme inhibitors – so the recipe said), maple syrup, tahini, grated chocolate and pure vanilla extract, it was actually very good – especially when garnished with berries – if very rich.

But I don’t recommend grating chocolate as a relaxing activity; it flies everywhere a bit like polystyrene beans and I ended up breaking a much-loved Pyrex dish in my attempts to sweep up the chocolate confetti littering the kitchen bench. I was rushing – hence the jaw clenching bit – as I’d done my beach cardio routine (see my last blog post) in the morning, washed the floors, cleaned Bertie’s ears, done a few loads of laundry and washed up all the pots and pans left over from making coq-au-vin the night before for a meals-on-wheels catch-up with a girlfriend, and now I had a 3.30pm appointment to get to. After that I just had time to bolt round the block with the dog child before heading across town – complete with grid-locked Saturday night traffic (argh!!!) – to meet friends at the cinema.

I studied Far From the Madding Crowd for my O’ levels at school (that dates me…) and know and love the book and the 1967 film with Julie Christie and Alan Bates. The 2015 adaptation is good; Carey Mulligan is excellent as Bathsheba Everdene and who can fail to be swept away by the rolling Dorset countryside? I’m not sure Matthias Schoenaerts’ Gabriel Oak has quite the same humble earthiness as Alan Bates’ character, but it was a fine film nevertheless and I got to SIT DOWN! Over drinks with my friends after the film, they talked variously of a holiday in Bali, sleeping in and siestas. Green with envy, by 10pm I was beginning to flag, my batteries seriously flat.

The next day I was up and out with Bertie and then across town again for a sumptuous birthday feast prepared in honour of a friend’s birthday. We all took a dish – from Greek rabbit casserole to chicken and fennel meatballs to the most divine lemon cheesecake and my chocolate pâté. A marvellous time was had by all but it was 6pm by the time I got home. Sated but happy, I was also exhausted and in bed by 9.30pm, which was bliss after three nights out and about.

So, come Monday morning, by which time I was once again bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I was particularly interested to read a blog post by motivational coach and author Andrew Jobling and to watch a video by Brendon Burchard of the High Peformance Academy. Both had content that really interested me, and after a choc-a-bloc weekend, the timing seemed perfect. Jobling’s blog was all about ‘do or die’ non-negotiable goals – I’m thinking writing a book – and how to stick to them, whatever life throws at you. Birthday feasts apart, committing to writing means keeping a day or afternoon free a week even if it means saying ‘No’ to a lunch or seeing a friend. It’s called commitment – and a healthy measure of self-belief comes in handy too.

But how do we stick to our goals when so many other things compete for our time and attention? Because everyone is busy. Burchard talks about getting into the right mindset and having focus and clarity. He asks if we can envision – really see, feel and sense – ourselves achieving the goal, as in becoming our future selves. Have any other wannabe authors pictured themselves holding a finished book at the launch party? I like his tip about programming in some quick wins to keep the motivation going and about gathering supportive people and mentors around you. And my favourite – given my choc-a-bloc tendency – is Bandwith Belief. This is where you ask yourself if the goal or activity is something that you have enough time or focus to do well.

Burchard – and he has a very compelling style – claims that we can all get 30 minutes to an hour back each day. Really?! But he’s not one of those lifestyle gurus who tell you to get up half an hour earlier each day. On the contrary, he advocates getting up to 50 minutes more sleep. But he does recommend avoiding distractions such as trashy TV or clicking through to banal or non-essential links on social media. The trouble is that I am not doing any of those things anyway – some weeks I don’t even turn the TV on and I go for days without looking at Facebook. But there is something I could do less of – and that’s housework.

And I’m not the only one harassed by housework. My recent Airbnb guest, GP, asked if I did all the cleaning myself, remarking that there was quite a lot of floor to clean (ah, sympathy, how nice!). She lives in a small apartment in Singapore but has one of those robot cleaners. As long as you take up any floor rugs (the robot might try and eat them), she says they are pretty effective. The conversation at the birthday feast also turned to computerised cleaners. In fact my friend Di is thinking of putting her birthday money towards one of these automated floor mops. And why not if it gives you more time to focus on more important things?

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Right now, either human cleaners or robots seem an attractive solution to broadening my Bandwidth! But I’m still intrigued to watch Burchard’s video on how to increase productivity by 30%. He says you can do that by working less and reducing stress. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Stay tuned for my next post. Meanwhile I could do with a robot at work to write grant and funding applications…

Culinary Catastrophes and very slooooow soup

This weekend I decided to let go of the to-do lists and writing compulsion and, instead, potter around the house, watch films and have a cook-up. A sort of brain de-cluttering weekend after a few intense weeks at work.

I started with a long bath on Friday night accompanied by a whisky and soda followed by leftovers for dinner. Bertie and I then snuggled up (he definitely thinks the sofa is HIS bed) and watched the first episode of Homeland (a friend from work lent me the first series on DVD).

On Saturday I tested out a slow cooker that a dog-walking friend passed on to me. I started with a curried carrot and lentil soup. The recipe stated that it should be cooked on low for 4-5 hours. I have never used a slow cooker before so didn’t want to leave it on while I was out. Slow cookers really do require a lot of trust. What if the soup boiled dry and caught fire? What about Bertie? So it was only on for half an hour before I took myself off to see Testament of Youth, the fabulous film adapted from the First World War memoir by Vera Brittain. Do go and see it if you haven’t already.

When I got home I put the soup on for another couple of hours and watched with fascination as nothing seem to happen – not a single bubble, pop or squeak, but then the whole point of slow cookers is the, um, slowness. Assuming that the soup would eventually cook, I turned my attention to Sunday night’s dinner. With my brother and his wife overseas, I volunteered to cook for my niece and my two nephews. Now before I start on my tale, I should explain that my sister-in-law is a Cordon Bleu cook and produces the most amazing meals. My 21-year-old nephew is also a highly accomplished chef. No pressure there then…

I used to love cooking when I was a child and young adult. Starting with domestic science classes at school when I was eleven to dinner parties at university and then in my share houses and first flat, I was a reasonably good and keen cook. Although I still enjoy cooking, something seems to have been lost in translation.

Anyway, a friend shared a Boeuf Bourguignon recipe with me, one she had downloaded from the SBS website and found to be easy and delicious. As a dish I could prepare in advance, it seemed perfect. Once I’d bought in a kilo of topside, a few leeks, shallots, a bottle of red wine, herbs, some carrots, celery and about 300g of speck and mushrooms, I was ready to go. So on Saturday night, in case the urge to write came upon me on Sunday (it didn’t), I sautéed the base of speck, thinly chopped carrots, celery, leek and onion.

Come Sunday afternoon all I had to do was brown the beef and add it to the vegetables with the wine, bring it to the boil and cook very slowly for 40 minutes. As the meat simmered, I started on the carrot puree, a special touch in this particular recipe which you stir in at the end, and on the fruit crumble. I had the meat on one ring, apples and frozen blackberries on another and the carrots on the back ring. My casserole pot is quite large and about ten minutes into the cooking, I noticed that it had knocked the gas knob up to high. I quickly lifted off the lid and brought the meat back to a simmer. But I fear the damage was already done as the meat was pretty damn tough and chewy when I tested it twenty minutes later. How could I feed the kids shoe leather?

Delicious apart from the leathery meat!

Delicious apart from the leathery meat!

In desperation I rang Ollie, the 21-year-old, and asked for his advice. He thought that I must have either over-cooked the meat when I browned it or during the actual cooking. I offered to run out and buy steaks – we could perhaps drain off some of the delicious bourguignon sauce to have with them – but they had had steak the night before. Ollie said there was some lamb in the fridge that needed cooking so he threw that into the top oven. I agreed to go down about and hour before we were due to eat and pop some baking potatoes in the oven.

I got the potatoes in just after 6pm – we planned to eat at 7pm – and then, keen to salvage my culinary credibility, dashed out to Woolworths and got some milk, a cauliflower and some cheese. I am proud to say – something had to work – that I produced a beautifully browned cauliflower cheese on the dot of seven. We also heated up the carrot puree and fried up the mushrooms. While the cauliflower cheese was in the oven, I got on with the rest of the crumble, rubbing the chilled unsalted butter into the mix of flour, almond meal and sugar (special low GI coconut sugar, if you please). Not only did it start to resemble dough rather quickly, I began to get pains in my wrists – too much typing, I say – so re-named the dish RSI crumble.

Phew - it worked!

Phew – it worked!

With a bit more flour and almond meal, the crumble turned out OK. Well more or less. We were laughing so much about how I’d never make Masterchef – the baked potatoes were a little undercooked and the carrot puree was on the bland side – that I forgot to time the crumble. The topping was a wee bit burnt, but salvageable, when I got it out of the oven but the apples were still a bit crunchy. How did that happen?! I did better than this in year 8! At this point we were all laughing hysterically. What we lacked in culinary precision, we gained in the most wonderful evening of belly laughing bonding. And I proved worthy of my nickname: Mad Aunt Lot-Lot.

Oh, and when I got the home the carrot soup was just about cooked!

Armchair travel

The beauty of being an Airbnb host (and I am not writing a promo here!) is that you get to meet people from all over the world and share stories, meals, laughter and life experiences. Living in Australia means that most overseas travel is medium to long haul; you certainly can’t nip off to Europe for a weekend. So bringing a flavour of those countries and customs into your house can be the next best thing.

I’m always fascinated by different customs and ways of living: toast with jam no butter (my Italian guests); toast with peanut butter and jam (the Americans); eating toast and bread off a slice of kitchen paper rather than a plate (the Americans); rinsing a clean cup before drinking out of it (the Chinese); shoes off before coming into the house (the Malaysians); and – no surprises here – wall to wall pasta with pesto (the Italians).

I asked the first people to enquire about my room lots of questions before accepting their reservation. If guests have not completed their Airbnb profile or got reviews from previous hosts, it’s a bit of a blind date. So I gave Cinzia and Giulia the third degree! After all they were due to arrive in the early hours of the morning and let themselves in to my house. Needless to say the sisters, who hail from Sulmona in the Abruzzo region of Italy, were warm-hearted and very easy to get to know. So much so that I soon had an invitation to go and visit next time I am in Europe. I’d never heard of Sulmona, the birthplace of the poet Ovid, but am now excited about exploring this small medieval city surrounded by mountains and packed with historical interest. I can just see myself sitting in one of the bustling squares, sipping a glass of wine and people watching.

Cinzia and Giulia kept very late hours and didn’t get into the Australian habit of eating early – no ‘When in Rome do as the Romans’ for them – but we did manage to share a meal together one night. They cooked a rich and flavoursome mushroom risotto and I made baked peaches with almonds.

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As I have written previously my American tandem-riding guests, Dan and Vicky, were also a lot of fun. They were with me over Christmas and New Year and we went out for a special dinner on Christmas Eve, shared downtime around the house with Dan helping me with lots of ‘honey-dos’ (see xxxx), and took in a few movies and beach walks. They invited me to their home in Denver, Colorado, next Christmas and – to cut a long story short – I am saving up. Too bad that Bertie won’t be able to come too.

Last week I had my first Chinese visitors and what a delight they were. Chester and Janice are first cousins, both twenty years old. Janice is studying in Sydney and Chester came over from Guangzhou (he taught me how to pronounce it properly as Guanjo) to check out Monash University. They sometimes got into a bit of a linguistic tangle and would dissolve into giggles, which I found most endearing. They were extremely quiet and considerate around the house and cleaned the kitchen so thoroughly that I could hardly tell if they had eaten or not. What’s more they gave me a beautiful blue and white Chinese bowl with a picture of a fish, a symbol of abundance.

They cooked Western style while they were here and made me, an English woman, American-style pancakes with maple syrup one morning. As I said in my Facebook post, it was yum without the cha! To return the compliment, I cooked dinner one night. A friend asked me if I had included rice in the menu. That would have been ‘Coals to Newcastle’ so I made rack of lamb with quinoa salad with feta cheese, spinach and cherry tomatoes.

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They found the salad ‘interesting’ and the lamb delicious but are not used to eating such a big meal at night. Their parents’ business is in dry foods that go into special medicinal soups. As anyone who has visited a Chinese herbalist or doctor will know, cold straight-from-the-fridge foods are a no-no, as is iced water. Warming teas, soups and rice-based meals are the go. I learnt that there are special soups for women who have had a baby, women who have just menstruated and much more. But this was a ‘when in Melbourne’ occasion and we broke all the rules. We started with a celebratory drink of Scotch whisky and soda on the rocks, ate pinkish lamb with the’ interesting salad’ (cheese is not common in China and quinoa probably non-existent) and then finished with a special dessert they made out of cooked tapioca, coconut milk and mango.

We used to get tapioca pudding at school and we all struggled to eat it, complaining that it was like frog spawn. It’s true that the tapioca pearls do have a spawn-like appearance and they are somewhat gelatinous. But I really savoured the feeling of the cool jelly-like baubles in my mouth on Sunday night. Mixed with coconut milk and mango, it was the perfect dessert for a 33-degree summer’s evening.

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It was hugs all round when they left the next morning and I got to eat the tapioca pudding leftovers that night. This week I have a Malaysian mother and son staying. Who knows what we might eat, do or learn from one another? Meanwhile, I’m doing my best to take off my shoes before coming into the house!

Totally into Tea

As a tea drinker living in one of the world’s coffee capitals – according to one website I checked, metropolitan Melbourne gets through three million cups of coffee a day – I’ve decided it’s time for tea to steal some of the bean’s thunder – you could say it’s the war of the shrubs, camellia sinensis versus coffea. Because although there are plenty of other tea fans out there, coffee is still the beverage du jour and it’s all got increasingly fancy what with hand-picked beans, computer-controlled roasting, humidity-controlledfridges, syphons, grinders, dripper, filters and frothing jugs. You name it.

Freshly picked tea leaves from the camellia sinensis shrub

Freshly picked tea leaves from the camellia sinensis shrub

The good news for us teAtotallers (teAtotal being the opposite of coffee careerist) is that tea drinking has also reached a level of sophistication that makes dusty tea bags dunked in a cup of hot water seem a travesty. Tea is a whole world unto itself as I have been discovering.

Writing an article on tea for a health insurance magazine recently, I discovered that tea drinking dates back to around 2700 B.C., making it older than coffee and younger than wine. Legend has it that the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung was boiling his drinking water when leaves from a nearby tea shrub blew into the cauldron and, hey presto, the cuppa was born. There are four main types of tea: Black ,Green, Oolong and White tea. The difference lies in the degree of fermentation and processing. White tea, for example, is made with minimal processing of young new leaves that can only be picked for a few weeks a year. So, while it’s one of the pricier teas, it’s also very high in health boosting anti-oxidants. And then there all the wonderful herbal brews and tisanes made from herbs, fruits, flowers and spices. I am currently drinking Revive tea from Husk, a gloriously fragrant blend of lemon scented tea tree and hawthorn berries.

Nothing beats the humble cuppa

Nothing beats the humble cuppa

In my perambulations around the subject, I came across Sarah Cowell of Teasense, whose love of speciality teas has taken her to China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan. She’s been a Tea Sommelier at Melbourne’s Vue du Monde and Storm in a Teacup and now runs tastings and trainings, encouraging people to approach tea as “a sensory experience and something you develop a ‘sense’ or feel for if you listen. Like commonsense, over time, you can develop your own ‘teasense’.” (See http://www.teasense.com.au).

Last week, I put my teasense to the test at one of Sarah’s events, a chocolate and tea pairing. We sampled 6 different teas: Roasted Green tea, Hojicha from Japan; Dry Season Uva Black tea, a high altitude from Sri Lanka; Oriental Beauty Oolong from Taiwan; Bi Lu Chun green tea (translated as green snail spring) from China; Jasmine Green and pear tea from China; and Genmaicha green tea from Japan.
She encouraged us to engage all our senses – this was mindfulness in a tea cup – and to notice the aroma, colour, feel, taste, texture and flavour of the tea. Just like with wine, one of the best ways to ‘feel into’ the tea is by slurping and aerating it in the mouth.

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One of the teas we tasted was Oriental Beauty Oolong from Taiwan. Sarah teamed it up with a 64% dark chocolate from Vietnam. Some of us got vanilla notes from the tea and, from the chocolate (no biting allowed, only a slow sensuous melt in the mouth), notes of dried cranberry and banana. And, interestingly, the tea felt creamier and smoother in the mouth with the chocolate.

We ended with one of my favourites Genmaicha rice green tea from Japan. Now something of a delicacy and treat, this tea originated in post-war Japan when times were hard and puffed brown rice was added to make the tea stretch further. I love the toastiness of the rice and find it softens the green tea. What’s more, you can eat the pieces of puffed rice after brewing! We paired it with a green tea Kit Kat (available in Asian stores), an excellent combination of earthy greenness offset by the sweetness of the Kit Kat, which has a white chocolate base with green tea added.

It was an excellent evening and I learnt some great tips to enrich my experience of tea:
• Decant tea into a second pot to stop it brewing and getting too strong. This may seem obvious but rarely happens. If I order a leisurely pot of English breakfast in a café, it ends up like brown stew by the time I pour my second or third cup.
• Brew oolongs and white teas in a small pot and re-steep, because the second or third infusions are often the best.
• Heat the water to 90 degrees for green tea. So, for those of us without fancy temperature-controlled kettles, simply leave for a few minutes after boiling and then let the tea infuse for one and a half minutes to avoid bitterness.
• Aim to pour your tea anti-clockwise. In China, this means ‘come in and welcome,’ while clockwise pouring means ‘scarper, bugger off, go home’!
• And, one of my favourites, in Chinese tea ceremonies they never fill the cup full so there’s room for friendship.

The evening left me inspired to host my own tea tasting and to always leave plenty of room for friendship!

Life’s too short…

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In 1975 Shirley Conran famously said, “Life is too short to stuff a mushroom.” The quote was of course about the expectations on women to be superwomen and ‘have it all’. Today, in a purely culinary context, I decided to coin a new phrase: Life is too short to make an egg white omelette. Have you ever made or eaten one? Perhaps, like tofu, egg white omelettes are simply a vehicle for carrying other flavours. But why bother dressing up a pale imitation, when you can have the real thing? It’s a bit like vegetarian sausages or soy cheese; a contradiction in terms. You really can’t have it both ways.

The only reason I cooked up an anaemic, tasteless, fluffy white concoction was because I had four egg whites left over from making a super rich pistachio ice cream at the weekend that called for egg yolks, cream, sugar, pistachios and rose water. It was rather good, if a little too sweet, and combined the floral flavours of Turkish delight with a subtle nuttiness. Never mind that my nephew thought it was brown bread ice cream!

But back to mushrooms and stuffing them. I disagree with Shirley. I used to do a stuffed mushroom dish with diced bacon, tomato, parsley, wine, breadcrumbs and cheese. It was easy an easy dish to throw together and tasted delicious. The only problem is that I lost the recipe years ago. Anyone got anything similar in their repertoire?