Owning your (my) own style

I haven’t seen my house for a few weeks but the renovations are nearly finished and I’m dissatisfied already! But only in my head, you understand. I think it’s a case of renovation envy. It all started when I visited a lovely new friend in Anglesea – she’s a writer and artist – and had lunch in her beautiful home. You can see her artist’s eye at play everywhere; the triangular patterned tiles echoing the earthy shades of terracotta and blue on the walls and in the boxed shelves, the art on the walls, the huge (and well-fitting windows) framing views of gnarled and forked gum trees, the marble-top kitchen and chunky pottery dotted around, the funky butter dish, the lime green weighing scales, the brightly coloured mosaic tiles in the bathroom beautifully toned in with the sink, a colourful Mexican-looking ceramic bowl. And then there’s the wood burner with the sliding glass front warming the room and adding another stylish touch.

If only I’d seen her house before I chose the white subway tiles from Bunnings, I thought going all Discontented Pony (anyone else familiar with the Ladybird Books story from childhood?), and maybe I should have persisted in getting the shelving unit in the living room re-done the way I wanted. And then what about my kitchen bench top fiasco? In truth the kitchen tops are the only part of the renovations that have gone a bit ‘off message’ and it’s one of those situations where it’s not really anyone’s fault. My builder – and I can’t praise him enough; he’s absolutely meticulous, punctual, professional and gentle with it – noticed that the laminex pattern I had chosen was 30 per cent more expensive than the standard range. So he hunted around and found a match from another company. He showed me the sample when I went up to the house at the end of March, and I approved it.

What neither of us noticed (the sample was the size of a match box) is that it had a strange indentation which, over a large area, looks like a series of scribbly scratch marks. While it’s not what I would have chosen, I’m going to make the best of it. The bottom line is that changing it would stuff up the budget bottom line by $2000. And once all my things are dotted around – yellow lemons on my grandmother’s green cake stand, my Italian ceramic fruit bowl (also featuring lemons), my blue and white candlesticks and all the other paraphernalia and memorabilia currently stacked floor to ceiling in various cupboards, the strange scribbles will fade into the background.

My spare room cupboard packed to the gills

My spare room cupboard packed to the gills

And that’s the thing. My style is my style. Although I am a little restricted by a modest budget, my choices reflect who I am and where I hail from. I’m not an artist with an eye for the Tuscan look and triangular tiles, but I am a homemaker through and through, and the interior of my house is a somewhat eclectic mix of classical English meets country cottage meets suburban Melbourne. I’ve got some treasured antique pieces from both my grandmothers, a fair few bits of charity shop chic, a bit of IKEA and lots of pictures on the walls, none of them which could be described as modern or abstract. So when I embarked on renovation plans, my aim was to keep a classical, if slightly quirky, look. Hence the claw foot bath, black and white tiles and hand-crafted cloche light in the bathroom, and the white painted shelving unit on either side of the fireplace so I can – at long last– display all my treasures from an antique ginger jar to more modern glassware, favourite books, tea cups, jugs and ornaments.

In fact the older I get, the more I love antiques, not just the look of them but the stories behind their design, creation and use. I’ve been watching a British program on SBS called Antiques Uncovered hosted by an historian and an antiques expert. In the last episode they went to Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire to look at the history of tea cups, sofas, Georgian glassware, chandeliers and more. It’s all a bit broad brush as they cover so many items in one program, but I particularly enjoyed the bit about the history of porcelain. The Chinese, of course, developed porcelain in the tenth century, but it was not until the British discovered the magic ingredient, Cornish soapstone (talcum powder), that porcelain or, ‘White Gold’ as it was known, became all the rage in the eighteenth century. And it said something about your class as to whether you drank from translucent china which held hot water without leaking, or from a rough, porous earthenware cup. The upper classes could pour the hot tea straight into the cup and then add the milk, whereas the lower classes had to put the milk in first to prevent the cup from shattering. That’s why the ‘right’ way is still considered to be the tea first method.

Tea cup

It’s like Downton Abbey – I’m an unashamed fan (although the last double bill episode of Series Four was terribly implausible and a big anticlimax) – it’s all about class and what’s going on Upstairs and Downstairs.

To that end, I also saw a program featuring Downton producer Julian Fellowes going behind the scenes at another of England’s huge stately piles, Burghley House. Burghley was built by William Cecil, treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I. He was the one who ordered the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. The house is still owned and run by his descendents today. It was a fun program looking at parish records, letters and diaries to unearth some of the stories of the lords and ladies and their servants. As Fellowes said, “we’ve all got ancestors that were giving or taking orders. History belongs to all of us.”

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.


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!

A few of my favourite things… and people

There’s nothing like shifting up a decade to make you reflect on the past and think ahead to the future. Although getting older has its downsides, in other ways life gets easier: most of us wise up a bit, are less preoccupied with how we come across and whether people like us. We’re not so worried about how many exams we’ve passed and how high up the career ladder we’ve climbed. We know what we stand for, what we value most in life and whom we want to spend time with.

I made a fuss of my recent big birthday and celebrated being alive, well and still on planet earth. But most of all, I celebrated family and friends, from ‘old’ friends in the UK to ‘new’ friends here in Australia. They are all part of who I am and who I have become, and I am so grateful for all the ways in which they have enriched my life.

I received some wonderful birthday gifts, messages and cards with a few key themes emerging: tea, tea drinking and Britishness (Keep Calm and Have a Cuppa); jewellery, beautiful pottery, glass and ceramics; books, travelling and writing (a kindle, an oversize visual feast Lonely Planet book and a plaque of Charlotte Bronte, a great talisman (or should I say taliswoman?) to inspire my writing), and all things dog related (from a cocker spaniel mug to a book on dog behaviour).

A very special friend from the UK, Monica, who I have known since we were both 14 – and I am singling her out because she is dealing with extremely confronting challenges in her family life – found time to send me a parcel containing a few of my favourite things. Bit by bit I unwrapped a packet of Earl Grey Darjeeling containing ’15 biodegradable tea temples’ from a company with a dachshund logo called teapigs, some Earl Grey lip balm (organic and vegan), a long striped scarf in vibrant colours, some Tuscan blood orange body balm (free of nasties and animal testing), a designer linen towel, some wild (English) rose shower cream, a gorgeous enamel necklace, photos from our younger days (yikes, what was I doing with permed hair?) and a card full of special messages and in-jokes featuring a chocolate Lab listening to his iPod. I was so touched and yet so sad she was not with me that I couldn’t help but shed a tear.

A heartfelt present from a very special friend

A heartfelt present from a very special friend

And then I had a little soiree courtesy of my brother and his wife who generously opened up their house so I could mark my milestone with a few friends. And what an evening it was! It was not only a celebration of my half century but also the culmination of nearly ten years in Australia. The whole evening was characterised by the warmest and most affectionate of vibes with my mother, sister and niece tuned in via Skype from their kitchen in London. And I needn’t have worried what my brother would say about his little sister; he made a wonderful speech full of childhood memories such as smashing our mother’s best tea set, rolling down bracken-covered hills and driving up icy hills in Derbyshire. He went on to acknowledge my academic and professional successes at the same time lamenting my disasters with men and dating. Thank God for Bertie dog, he concluded.

I am most amused by my brother's speech

I am most amused by my brother’s speech

And then, as a complete surprise, my friend Rosi, whom I met in choir, bravely took centre stage (well, I could hardly hog it ALL evening) and sang to me her specially written version of These Are a Few of My Favourite Things. Cleverly, with all the verses rhyming, she wove in references to my being a striving self-helper and writer with a stiff neck habit, a fan of the Feldenkrais method and Ayurvedic practice, a not-for-profit grant-writer, a Bayside-dwelling, literature and dog-loving Brit with a fatal attraction for the wrong kind of men. It was the most affectionate warts ‘n’ all tribute one would wish for.

Never have I felt so loved and appreciated. For once I was not the singleton at the wedding, the wallflower at the dance, the outsider at the new school or the new kid in town. It was my party and I could float around like a Queen if I felt like it (my friend Tim from Hepburn Springs actually alluded to me and Her Maj in the same sentence, although I doubt Liz would wear fake flowers from Sportsgirl in her hair…). Surrounded by loving friends and family, I realised like never before that it really was OK to be me – imperfections, hang ups, trials, tribulations, triumphs, the whole shebang – and still be loved and lovable. And as for the men, well I’ve still got up to 50 years to change the pattern (we are, of course, living longer and longer). Meanwhile, as American singer and song writer Carrie Underwood is reputed to have said: “The more boys I meet, the more I love my dog.” Thank God, indeed, for beautiful Bertie. Ladies and Gentlemen please raise a toast to my devoted hound.