Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Pudding with eggnog icecream - the boys do dessert

I was very proud of my son on Christmas Day. I am generally proud of him for all sorts of reasons: he is smart, funny, resourceful and fiercely independent. He recently started his first full-time job and fulfilled a long-held dream by moving into a small flat in inner Melbourne. Jonathan loves the lifestyle, being a 5 minute bike ride from work and able to walk into the city, go the markets and just wander around the old industrial areas taking photos. As I said in an earlier post, he has taken to cooking like a duck to water, and has been quite adventurous - no meat and three veg for him. As is his nature, when he decides to cook he takes a scientific approach (he's read Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking from cover to cover) following the recipe and preparing carefully for his dishes.

So when he told me three weeks ago that he thought he'd like to make the Christmas pudding for Christmas lunch, I knew he would take the same approach and was reasonably confident he could pull it off. We had a few brief discussions about methods and ingredients, but he did it all on his own. After much research, he found a recipe he liked on the internet and went on a big (and expensive) shopping trip to gather his ingredients. He set aside one of his days off and was up until 3 in the morning while it boiled the required 3 hours. Then he put it aside for three weeks. On Christmas day we lit it with brandy (briefly setting fire to our hands!) and served it with all the trimmings. I have an aversion to dried fruit, so don't normally eat Christmas pudding but had to sample it, and can happily report that it was a triumph, rich and fragrant, dense but moist. My mum told him it would make his great-grandmother proud - she was the pudding maker in the family. It certainly made me very proud - of a unique and gifted 22 year-old.

PS: Special mention here to my daughter's boyfriend Ryan who loves to cook and is an excellent baker. Ryan has a love-hate relationship with my Krups ice-cream maker. On the Wednesday before Christmas he spent many hours (and went through about 18 eggs!) perfecting the mix for an eggnog icecream which was the perfect accompaniment to Jonathan's Christmas pudding. As Ryan discovered, when making custard for icecream it is always really important to follow the recipe exactly and not overcook the custard! One false move and the icecream is a disaster - grainy and heavy. Here's the recipe:
Eggnog Icecream
(Serves 10)

2 cups thickened cream
2 cups milk
2 vanilla beans, split, seeds scraped
9 large egg yolks
1 cup caster sugar
1 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
¼ cup good quality whiskey (or rum)

Combine cream, milk, vanilla pod and seeds in a heavy-based saucepan. Bring to a gentle simmer over medium heat, then remove from heat, cover and set aside for 15 minutes.
In an electric mixer, beat egg yolks and caster sugar in a large bowl for 2-3 minutes or until mixture is thick and creamy. Gradually beat in the milk mixture. Return the custard to the same cleaned pan with the ground nutmeg. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, for ten minutes or until mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. It is very important not to allow the mixture to boil or it will curdle. Stir in the whiskey and strain through a fine sieve into a large bowl. Once the custard is cold process it according to the icecream maker’s instructions. Depending on the size of the ice cream maker, you may need to divide the custard into to two – mine only makes a litre at a time. Alternatively depending on how many people you have for lunch, you could divide the above recipe in half – if it’s only one of several accompaniments, you only need a spoonful .

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Aga steps up for Christmas

The Aga has been working overtime this last couple of weeks, with various lunches and goodies to prepare, and for the most part it has been a very good Aga. However it did entail a major crisis and an intervention by Caroline who's been cooking on an Aga all her life. At one point on a Sunday morning, just before the book club girls and boy were due to arrive for our end of year lunch, as I was squatted down in front of the roasting oven, trying to cover the rapidly carbonising edges of a lemon tart with foil as it balanced precariously on the edge of the oven rack, its still liquid filling dripping over the edge and onto the hot base of the roasting oven, I thought " for &*%$'s sake, why couldn't I just be normal and have an ordinary oven, why do I always have to make life difficult for myself".

The lunch actually turned out very well, the second tart I baked was perfect, the Elizabeth David flourless chocolate cake well-received, the fresh bread duly admired. And it also turned out to be an epiphany of sorts: when I couldn't create an effective foil shield for the edge of my tart, I just covered the second one entirely with foil and lo and behold it worked perfectly - shielding the tart from the intense heat of the roasting oven and allowing it to cook slowly. When Caroline came to lunch she also took one look and feel of the Aga plates and said 'turn it down, it's running too hot - no wonder you've been burning things' . Well that was peculiarly liberating, I had been warned off playing with the controls and now felt free to adjust it.

So now I'm ready for the Christmas madness. And madness it is - here's a scan of page one of my 4 page Christmas menu, shopping list and timeline to prove it. I've never been big on Christmas, most of my family being in South Africa, but we nonetheless put on a relatively big and traditional-ish spread. As you can imagine it's my favourite part. This year I'm brining the turkey after reading so much about it on the NYTimes food pages at Thanksgiving. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Have a wonderful Christmas wherever you are,

Monday, November 30, 2009

Maira Kalman on eating less "fastly fastly"

I love Maira Kalman's columns in the New York Times, and this past weekend she put together a lovely ode to conscious eating, and her visit to California for the Chez Panisse experience ( and mushroom picking with Michael Pollan!). Check out the picture towards the end when she has lunch at Alice Waters house. Alice cooks her an egg on a large metal spoon held over an open fire - which I had read about but now am determined to try. Some of the responses to Kalman's column I think are dead right in questioning the hypocrisy of being able to do what she did - fly across the country to lunch with some of the big names - while also bemoaning the fast food culture of America. Unfortunately the price of good local produce is still out of the reach of some, as is the ability to grow your own, particularly if you live in the high-rises and inner urban areas. To Kalman's credit she does ask the question "Do the wealthy have access to the really healthy food while the less affluent do not?" And the answer is "of course". Anyway, read and enjoy and think and pass it on.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Woman's Place is in the Kitchen

The title of today's blog may come as something of a surprise to those who know that in my former life pre-cookbook selling, I did my PhD in women's history. No I haven't had a complete turnaround, in fact what I wanted to celebrate today is a bit of girl power. I have just put together my latest catalogue , and it dawned on me (as I'm sure it has dawned on many others, I'm just a bit slow on the uptake) that while men may dominate the kitchens of the world's restaurants, many of the best food writers were/are women! As a sample from the catalogue: Elizabeth David; MFK Fisher; Jane Grigson; Claudia Roden; Anna Del Conte; Ada Boni and Madeleine Kamman write/wrote engagingly and knowledgably about regional cuisines, food history, the science of food, the rituals of food and more. Marcella Hazan; Alice Waters and Julia Child were trailblazers in many ways. In Australia we've got Stephanie Alexander's bible The Cook's Companion; Maggie Beer's scarce and collectable Maggie's Farm and Maggie's Orchard; Margaret Fulton remains as (if not more) popular today as when her first book came out in 1968. I was tempted to do a catalogue of only women writers, but then I would have had to leave out some male stars of the food writing world - Ambrose Heath; Waverley Root; Harold McGee among them.

So have a look at your own cookbook shelves and see if there is a similar pattern there. Why is it that men are so dominant in the kitchen professionally-speaking and yet it seems to be women who dominate food-writing. An interesting discussion to be had there.

By the way I have now set up a Facebook page for the business as well as a Twitter account which I intend using to publicise new acquisitions and specials in the shop. I know, I know this is the girl with an Aga in the kitchen and a phobia about Thermomixes, but hey it's the GFC, us small business owners need to use any tools we can to get ahead.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Sunday is baking day & recipe journals

Having a retail shop sometimes cramps my cooking style, particularly being open on the weekends. Thank goodness then for Sundays when the shop opens at 12. I can cook breakfast for the members of the family who are around, prepare casseroles for during the week, bake some bread, and indulge my love of baking. This morning it's a perennial favourite: Cranberry, Oat and White Chocolate Cookies. This is a recipe that has been handed around among my group of friends and I've made it so often that in my recipe journal it is simply a list of ingredients: 1 1/4 cups rolled oats; 2 cups plain flour; 1 cup brown sugar; 1 cup dried cranberries; 1 cup white chocolate buds; 1 tsp bicarb soda; 225g butter and 1 egg. You mix all the dry ingredients together, add the melted (cooled) butter and egg, combine well, and drop teaspoons of the mix onto a baking tray. Bake at 180 and there you have it, chewy little mouthfuls, a little crisp on the outside with lots of textures and flavours within. You can vary the ingredients by subsituting other dried fruit for the cranberries and nuts for the white chocolate buds, but we keep coming back to this combination.

Which brings me to recipe journals - my son moved out of home 6 week ago and I am very proud of the way he has taken to cooking for himself, I gave him a couple of Women's Weekly cookbooks to start off with and he is having fun cooking all sorts of things. This weekend I have begun a recipe journal for him, writing in all my favourites and the basics I just have in my head. I've arranged it in the same order as mine but I'm leaving lots of blank pages in between for him to start adding his own favourites and cuttings.

I see every possible type of recipe journal in my business: Neatly typewritten books; bundles of cuttings from newspapers held together with elastic bands or string; cookbooks with every white space filled with hadnwritten recipes in tiny hand. In the shop I have a beautiful pair of journals dating from the late 19th century. They began life as a journal for a girl called Blanche Coombs in finishing school in Neuchatel in Switzerland, detailing her daily routine and contains some of her exercises, all in beautiful copperplate; in later life the books became a repository for her recipes, also in copperplate of a more mature hand. What is so interesting about these books, apart from the recipes, and what they reflect about eating habits and the availability of foood etc, is that in many ways they look like recipe journals written today - the recipes are favourites we can't do without, or ambitious projects we think we'd like to tackle the majority are for sweet dishes or baked goods and many of them have little notes about their origins: Blanch Coombs in the early 20th century attributes many recipes to 'Mama' , Cold Fig Pudding to Lady Bectine, Rhubarb and Tapioca Mould to the Daily Mail.

I started my recipe journal about 10 years ago after many years of trying all sorts of systems - card files, manila folders, you name it. Finally I bought a large lined hardcover notebook from a $2 shop and began sifting through the cuttings I had accumulated. I arranged it roughly as you would a traditional cookbook: Soups, starters, mains, desserts, baked goods, vegetarian dishes etc, leaving plenty of pages in each section for expansion. Today it is one of the first things I'd grab if we had to evacuate in a bushfire, as it contains many of the standards I make time and again, recipes given to me by friends and family or strangers: Dee's Brownies, Meg's Lemon Tart filling, Nana's Coconut Ice and Fudge recipes, and the recipe for a polenta slice they make at Kallista Deli, written on the back of a brown paper bag. Last night I created a tiramisu icecream based on Lorenza De Medici's Tiramisu recipe, and that has to go in before I forget it. (Now that's a whole topic for a blog!)

Monday, November 2, 2009

Climbed every mountain

Well Mountains of Books is over for the year and a good time was had by (mostly) all. Sadly I have to report a very poor weekend for cookbooks, but there was a very good attendance thanks to some great publicity in The Age on the weekend, and most stallholders did well. My family did, as always, an amazing job of supporting me in my various hare-brained pursuits. Hayley and Pip personned the canteen on Saturday, Ryan on Sunday, Hayley sat in the shop for me on Sunday and David acted as general dogsbody. Ryan also acted as photographer ( in between directing traffic in the car park - yes it did get that busy) Even my dear friend Dee helped pack books on Thursday for the fair and then to pack (almost all of them) back into boxes again at the end. Here's a few photos:

Over 60 people came in as the doors opened. Attendance was pretty steady on both days .

My Pip, doing a good job of looking after my customers.

Sascha from Lost and Found

Meryll from Rainy Day

Mm-Hmm Yep, Yep, yeah right.... Willie from Kallista Books

And Linda, also from Kallista Books

Yes my stall did have some customers during the weekend, most of them regulars.

Paul Trahair's stall was well-attended for his 50% off - 'Moving to Geelong and need to cull ' sale.

Jill's children's books are always a huge drawcard.

My lovely Hayley, recently back from South America and already back into the swing of helping Mum out

Hayley and Pip - taking a break from touring primary schools to serve lemon slice, chocolate hedgehogs and muffins
. The delightful Pam Bakes. We all love what we do, but in the end it's all about the money!!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mountains of Books - 31st October and 1st November 2009

My blog title today could refer to my life in general - I am sitting at my home desk, madly cataloguing to get through the last 10 boxes of a mountain of books I bought from a deceased estate this time last year; I am surrounded in my back room at the shop by mountains of books waiting to be shelved, sorted or otherwise disposed of; but in actual fact it refers to the book fair I and several colleagues are preparing for next weekend (31st October and 1st November). The idea for Mountains of Books Used, Rare and Out-of-Print Book Fair came to Meryll Williams and I as we returned from a book fair a couple of years back. Meryll is the popular proprietor of Rainy Day Books in The Basin, a foothills town nearby, and has been something of a mentor in my bookselling career. We roped in Sandy from Wormhole Books, the dapper Paul Trahair from Sad Paradise Books and Willie Williams from Kallista Books -Willie is a landscape gardener with a weekends-only bookshop in the same village as my shop.

They're a lot of work, book fairs, and not always financially rewarding for booksellers. I've been to a couple where I barely made enough money to cover the cost of my stall, but persist because of my experience at the Clunes Booktown weekend, where I always do very well. Finding a venue can be difficult, but we've set up in a pretty, historic hall in a picnic ground setting on the fringes of Sherbrooke Forest (and conveniently across the road from my house :-). Finding a date can be tough too - for our first one in 2008 we settled on what's known as the Melbourne Cup weekend (because it falls the weekend before the world-famous horse race on the first Tuesday in November) because the local Horticultural Society used to have an annual flower show that weekend - except that year they changed the date of the annual flower show! Finding the right mix of booksellers can also be a task - and last year we got it almost right.

This year we have been joined on the organising committee by the charming and industrious couple Sascha and Jeremy from the internet-only bookseller Lost and Found. We've got some local authors appearing for book signing and selling: Hanifa Deen; Ilsa Evans; Corinne Fenton; Macarthur Job & Nick Anchen. and while we have slightly fewer booksellers, they've all got more space and therefore more beautiful books to sell. The beauty of this fair is that most of our sellers are internet only dealers, meaning that the fair gives the public a unique opportunity to browse through some of their stock. Most of the sellers will be refreshing their stock throughout the weekend, so it'll be worth coming up at any stage during the weekend. All the booksellers deal in very good quality books, no rubbish to be found here, and the price range should provide something for everyone, with books from $10 - $1000

Here's an idea of what our sellers are bringing to the fair. If you are coming up, have a look at the internet stock of all our dealers before you arrive. If there is something in particular you'd like to see, they'll be happy to bring it along for you to the fair - there is nothing quite like holding a book and seeing it 'in person'!

Rainy Day Books has a cross-section of quality fiction and non-fiction. Meryll is a regular on Radio 3AW's Nightlife program so naturally she'll have copies of "Bruce's Bits and Phil's Philosophies" . Other highlights are Ross Napier's The Castlereagh line series, International garden photographer of the year - Books 1 and 2; Australian dreaming - 40,000 years of Aboriginal history; Medal of honor - portraits of valor beyond the call of duty - complete with dvd as well as a good selection of discounted paperback biographies.

Jill Braithwaite (Bookworm Ink) is a specialist children's bookseller. I've never seen as many collectible Enid Blytons in one place as I did last year on Jill's stall. She'll have a selection of Biggles; Mary Grant Bruce; Milly-Molly-Mandy; Ethel Turner; Cherry Ames; Bobbsey Twins; Rupert Annuals; Elsie J Oxenham; Angela Brazil; Elinor Brent Dyer; LM Montgomery..... Jill's table is always a highlight at any book fair she attends - a real trip down memory lane for many people (including myself).Sad Paradise Books: Paul is a generalist, but has an excellent range of books by and about the beat generation poets. This year at the fair he's offering 50% off marked prices on a selected range of Australiana, fiction, transport, the arts, Asia Pacific. Check out his online stock at

Joan Rogers has recently left The Old Bakery Cottage Bookshop in Warrandyte and is now selling online as The Book Fossicker from her new home in Clunes. She'll be bringing mainly non-fiction to Ferny Creek, with art, gardening and other kinds of related books - some biographies and history, it should be an interesting mix.

The elegant Pam Bakes of Page Two always has a beautiful stall. This year she plans to bring an eclectic selection of stock with a leaning towards fashion, art and architecture, plus some lovely Folio Editions, including a large format of Milton’s Paradise Lost in the original slipcase, classics Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with a pale green moirĂ© silk binding, and a delightful copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Also in stock will be Caroline Rennolds Milbank's magnum opus Couture : the Great Fashion Designers, showcasing about 50 of the most famous including Worth, Lavin, Poiret, Fortuny, Chanel, Dior, St. Laurent and Balenciaga. For fashionistas who enjoyed the movie The September issue, Pam also has a pristine copy of the September 2007 issue of US Vogue (which was the subject of the film). Also in Pam's stock will be Willem de Kooning’s Vellums published for an exhibition held in New York in 2001. This is not readily available in Australia, but fans of the artist will be entranced by this beautiful copy. For lovers of Australian art there will be Judith Ryan’s studies of Ginger Riley and Kitty Kantilla, both published in conjunction with exhibitions at the NGV, plus Sandra McGrath’s seminal work on Brett Whiteley which, when published in 1979, was the first major work on this artist. Pam's website is .

Lost and Found are general booksellers and will be bringing books on a bewildering array of subjects. As well as a range of current and vintage fiction, they will be covering all aspects of gardening, art, hand crafts, militaria, Australiana, gorgeous children's books and interesting local histories, especially of the Dandenongs. And then there is the exotica... so esoteric it doesn't fit readily into any classification! Before you come, please check out their 14,000 books online - you can browse them by subject catalogue. Sascha and Jeremy will be happy to bring anything you are interested in to Mountains of Books for personal pick-up. You'll need to let them know by midnight on Wednesday

Kallista Books: Willie has an exciting range of ephemera on offer as well as his usual cross-section of gardening, hardware, non-fiction etc: Special mention must be made of his hardware & nursery catalogues from as early as 1880, and craft and gardening magazines.

And Vintage Cookbooks? Well the majority of my book fair stock will be books that haven't even hit the shelves in my shop yet: A good selection of Elizabeth Davids, including first editions of French Provincial Cooking and The Book of Mediterranean Food and English Bread and Yeast Cookery; a selection of Julia Child (what's left of it anyway) ; Charmaine Solomon; Marcella Hazan; Stephanie Alexander; Larousse Gastronomique. There'll also be lots of ephemera and early Australian cookbooks. As usual I'll also be bringing my complete stock of the more unusual cuisines: Scandinavian, Russian, Middle East, Eastern European; Phillipines; Indonesian etc etc etc.

It promises to be a great weekend for booklovers. Do come and introduce yourself to me and receive a 10% discount off Vintage Cookbooks stock. And remember any time is a good time to come - there'll be new stock going onto the tables throughout the weekend. The details are:

Saturday 31st October 10 - 5 & Sunday 1st November 10 - 4

Ferny Creek Recreation Reserve Hall, Hilton Rd, Ferny Creek, Victoria

Here's the Google Map

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Julie and Julia: Warm, funny and delicious

Well the movie is out now in Australia and I have seen it for a second time with my movie buddy Dee. Julie and Julia is a skilful weaving by director Nora Ephron of two stories: how Julia Child discovered French food (told in her memoir "My Life in France") and how a New York secretary called Julie Powell decided to cook her way through Child's famous Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year and write a daily blog about it (told in her subsequent book Julie and Julia). It was a very clever decision by Ephron to combine the two stories, as I can't imagine a film on Powell's exploits alone would have been sustainable for 90+ minutes. Yes so she decided to cook 524 dishes in 365 days, but there are only so many ways to capture this on film, and as it is only the interesting episodes from Powell's blog and subsequent book made it to the screen. I read through Powell's blog recently and can also say that she bears little resemblance to the sweet (if feisty) character portrayed by Amy Adams. Being an acolyte of Alice Waters and a bit of a locavore myself, I found her strident criticisms of both harder to take than the expletives with which her writing is peppered.

Far more interesting is the story of Julia Child's introduction to cooking, as well as her relationship with her husband Paul - they clearly adored each other. Julia Child came to both marriage and cooking late: She apparently didn't know how to cook until her thirties and married Child at 34. She threw herself into both with (an apparently characteristic) enthusiasm. Meryl Streep's portrayal of Child is delicious, and she dominates the movie: when it switched back to Powell's story I found myself impatiently waiting for it to return to Child.

The food in Julie and Julia is as authentically portrayed as you would expect from Ephron who is herself a bit of a foodie. There was a great article in the New York Times about the food styling in the movie, which Ephron insisted be real - no fake food for this movie.

I loved the movie and can see why its release in America took Mastering the Art to the top of the best-sellers list for the first time and also brought a flood of orders from there for the few copies I had in stock (it also made it a very hot item on - first editions continue to sell for hundreds of dollars at the time of writing). Streep/Child's enthusiasm for food and love of the process of cooking are palpable and makes you want to Master the Art yourself.

The response to the movie in Australia has not been as enthusiastic. When David and I saw it the first time in SF, there were about ten people in the matinee session, around 6 weeks after it had come out. When Dee and I went to see it on its opening day at our local cinema there were only about 6. Everyone who has seen it has loved it and I've had quite a few people (women mostly) come to the shop after seeing it wanting to buy a copy of the book. But I suspect that Child doesn't have the same iconic status in Australia as she does in USA. Her tv series was never shown here, and while Mastering the Art had sold over 800,000 copies prior to the movie's release, few of those copies made it to Australian shores, and it just wasn't the staple in Australian kitchen libraries as it was in American ones (it was after all specifically aimed at "servantless American cooks"). More's the pity, it is a great book, and one which provides accessible instruction for those of us who will never make it to a Cordon Bleu cooking school.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A paean to the city of books

As you may already have worked out, I loooove books. Particularly second-hand books. I have always loved them. I love the way they smell (unless some fool has let them get mouldy); I love the way they feel, I love the way they look on the bookshelf. As a child I created a library in my room, painting a small white square on the spines of all my books with whiteout and writing their Dewey number on it (including I regret to report, on my complete collection of Famous Fives with dustjackets!). I was on close terms with my school and local librarians and had to be given an adult library card at around 12 because I had read my way through the children's section. My family shares my love. Our passage walls are lined with books, everyone has at least one bookshelf, books stand in stacks next to our beds waiting to be read. One of my proudest moments was when my daughter's Grade Two report stated that she had borrowed more books than any other pupil in the school. Almost nothing makes my heart race like the sight of a second hand book shop or a book fair.

I preface today's blog with this statement just so you will understand when I say two events of nearly equal importance have occurred in the last 2 weeks - my beloved oldest child Hayley arrived home from wandering through South America for 9 months, and .... I received a delivery of 5 boxes of books (and some kitchenalia) that I had posted to myself from San Francisco the day before we left. These 5 boxes - totalling approx 40kgs were in addition to the nearly 50kgs that came back in our luggage (thanks Qantas for your generous luggage allowance, it makes up for your stingy leg room, crap food and scarcity of toilets for economy class passengers since you created premium economy!)

For booklovers like me, San Francisco really is a paradise: I have mentioned the fantastic second-hand book shops of the city (and the Bay Area) in several posts. What I haven't mentioned due to the internet drought in the last week of our trip, was that it is also home to a range of fabulous book fairs and sales. (As an aside San Francisco is possibly the only place where those trying to raise some cash will spread their collection of books on the pavement to sell - not a lot of cookbooks, but great fiction and non-fiction to be bought for a buck. I guess they know there is a market for their wares) Across the year there are several significant book sales and antiquarian book fairs, and on my return visit to Books by the Bay , I noticed a flyer for the Annual Friends of the Library Book Sale- fortuitously being held on the last 4 days of our trip.
Now this is not just any book sale - it claims to be the biggest book fair in the USA , a claim I suspect is not mere hyperbole. The fair is held in the Fort Mason Arts precinct - a collection of former military warehouses. We lined up on Day 2 (Day 1 is for members of the friends group) with a small crowd, including a charming Irishman who after being retrenched from his job as a recruitment consultant 3 years ago now makes his living selling books on Amazon (and he lives in San Francisco. Kill me now!).
Like any well-organised book sale, this one had maps available to plot out your attack before you entered the warehouse, but unlike any book sale I've ever been to, also provided shopping trolleys for your loot. Everything was under $5, and there were two large tables (in a massive warehouse the size of an aircraft hangar) of cookbooks. And what cookbooks: all in great condition, and many things I don't see very often in Australia (some dross as well, but that's always the case). There were dozens of volumes from the Time-Life 'The Good Cook' series as well as 'Foods of the World', some Elizabeth David, more Marcella Hazan than I've seen anywhere ( including my shop) and even a few paperback copies of Julia Child's The French Chef to make up for my complete failure to find a single second-hand copy of MtAoFC on this trip.
I came out of there with a trolley full - whenever I tried to cull my dear husband would remind me that I wouldn't see most of this stuff at all in Australia, and it would go on the keep pile. The criteria was this: as much paperback as possible, but anything particularly scarce in hardback was ok, as well as books for which I had customer requests. Once all these books had been purchased I had to find the most economical way to get them back to Australia. Travelling California for three weeks had already resulted in one large box of books and a smaller box of kitchenalia in the back of the SUV and now we had added another couple. We bought a suitcase and 2 duffel bags to supplement our one case and bought yards of bubble wrap and packing tape. Luckily for me USPS has several great flat-rate International Priority Mail boxes available (Australia Post please take note) and I spent around $240 and an afternoon packing and repacking my precious cargo to find the most economical use of the boxes and suitcases. Luckily I pack books for a living, as when we picked up our suitcases at the luggage carousel in Sydney it was clear that one suitcase - a cute vintage brocade Samsonite - had been at the bottom of all the luggage; it was completely squashed flat and was literally the last case to come out! A couple of the USPS boxes too were a bit bumped and torn, but I am happy to report that the books, like my daughter, had survived their travels unscathed!!
I am already planning my return to coincide with this sale next year - and perhaps to take in the Golden Gate Park Book Fair at the end of October, and the Palo Alto Friends sale in early November or maybe a Friends monthly $1 book sale; if I go in February I could take in the 43rd Californian International Antiquarian Book Fair, or the San Francisco Antiquarian Book, Print & Paper Fair; stay until March and there is the Anarchist Book Fair...............

Monday, September 28, 2009

Home again, home again

You know that sensation of dislocation you get when you are away from home and wake up in a strange bed in the middle of the night? For a few seconds your brain says: Where am I? What am I doing here? Well two days after returning from our trip I'm feeling a bit like that most of the time during waking hours!! My family now knows in advance that, while I love them and miss them when I am away, I am always in a bit of a funk when I get back.

Last time I blogged was after our excellent meal at the Yosemite Bug back on September 17th. As it happens, internet access was patchy at best for the next 9 days as we moved around California. Now I need to catch up, but rather than bore you with a blow-by-blow account of that time ( a bit like a very extended slide show) I thought I'd just share some general impressions ove the next few days. In summary: After Yosemite we headed off to Kings Canyon & Sequoia National Parks, which were unfortunately left in the shade by the spectacular sights of the previous week. We made a decision to cut our stay there short and instead worked our way back across the width of the state to spend 3 days in Pacific Grove, next door to Monterey and at the start of the famous Big Sur drive. Unfortunately the Sur was fogged in for all three days we were there, but we still had a fantastic time exploring the region in more detail than we had been able to on previous visits. We then headed down to Anaheim for a Yankees baseball game against the Anaheim Angels, which turned out to be suprisingly enjoyable. A marathon night drive up the centre of the state to San Francisco via Bakersfield gave us 3 lovely days in a beautiful Inn in the Hayes District of the city to end our trip.

General Impression Number One: I've never made it through Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, but it is definitely on my must-complete list after driving for hours and hours through the Californian countryside seeing literally hundreds of miles of monoculture. Hundreds of miles of Pistachio trees, growing only by dint of the huge open canals siphoning water from rivers to turn deserts into orchards. Ditto the hundreds of miles of citrus growing in sand that can only possibly support them by being constantly supplemented by artificial fertilisers. Agriculture is apparently still California's top export, and it just shouldn't be - these thousands of square miles of crops are all growing in a natural desert. Most are grown by large corporations, using cheap, migrant labour; we would pass huge fields where produce was being processed on the spot - with dozens of labourers following massive harvesters, cleaning and packing as they went. Most wore makeshift face masks of t-shirts or towels to protect themselves from the dust being whipped up as they worked. Most of these workers are illegals so have very few benefits or rights and are working for tiny wages. We would sometimes stop in relatively prosperous towns where there would be a collection of trailers or small units clustered on the outskirts where these workers would live - it reminded me sadly of the situation in South Africa where I grew up: 'townships' were established which would segregate workers from the 'locals' keeping them out of sight - but still handy to work on the farms and towns.
On the way back to San Francisco from Anaheim, driving along the 5, we were also confronted by the reason everyone should become vegetarian (David would have felt smug if he hadn't been so sickened). Vast feedlots covering many hectares jammed full of cattle - nothing but dirt and their own faeces below their feet, no plants, no trees, long troughs full of grain and water in front of them. The smell weas unbelievable and stayed with us for miles after we had passed.
Recent food posioning scares in California agriculture have suggested that there is a price to be paid for this massive over-farming, but the situation is unlikely to change as long as there is a market for the produce. I will personally never buy a Californian pistachio or citrus fruit again, I would find it hard to give up meat, but like so many others I think organic and grass-fed is probably the way to go.

One more thing that struck us as we drove through these mega-orchards- there was not a bird to be seen or heard anywhere.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

September 17th - Back to the Bug

This trip has reinforced two things for me: I don't do tents or communal living. After a major meltdown last night about the accommodation and crowds at Camp Curry Village in Yosemite Valley, (see the previous post)I skyped a hostel called the Yosemite Bug in the town of Midpine, about 25 miles from the valley. Luckily they had a vacancy in a private room with a private bath so I cancelled the second night at Curry ( at 2.45am in the morning, when I couldn't get to sleep because of the refrigeration unit in the dining hall's kitchen which went on all night).

Hayley and I discovered the Bug when we did our mother-daughter, post-VCE trip to America at the end of 2003. I booked sight unseen then because it was cheap and seemed rustic and it turned out to be an absolute gem. It still is a gem, although no longer as rustic as it was 6 years ago - the rooms have been renovated (in a kind of hippy bordello chic - not as bad as it sounds) and the lovely old lounge with its' squashy couches and mismatched chairs has been updated.
What definitely hasn't changed (and thank goodness) is the outstanding food offered by the hostel's dining room. Rumour had it when Hayley and I stayed that the guy in charge had learned to cook in prison. Frankly I don't know or care where he learned, I just know that the food coming out of the kitchen was then, and still is, some of the best and freshest I have tasted in the US. Certainly I know of no other similar accommodation which offers this standard of dining. The Bug's kitchens grow or source locally as much of their produce as possible. The menu is small, (around 6 mains and a couple of salads) and changes according to what's in season. Dishes are carefully prepared with a real delicacy of flavour and presentation which comes as a complete surprise the first time you eat here. Of course knowing about the food in advance, and having tolerated an over-priced pizza at the Curry Dining Hall, this meal was what we were anticipating along with the comfortable bed and private bath.
So after another day of hiking and taking in the jaw-dropping scenery of Glacier Point and Taft Point above the valley, we headed off gratefully to the Bug and dinner.
David had the catfish po-boy sandwich ($8.95) and I had the slow-roasted pork which was served with steamed fresh beans and boiled new potatoes as well as a fresh chunky apple-sauce. ($12.95)
Serving sizes are small by American standards, but just perfect by Australian ones. You bus your own tables and get your own knives and forks etc, but I'm still not sure how they can do the food they do for the price. Unsurprisingly, there were several locals eating here as well as picking up the food 'to go'. I rounded off the day with a visit to the spa (oh that's the other difference since Hayley and I first stayed here!) feeling much more human. If you're ever in the area, do visit the bug, even if just to eat in the dining room. (Oh and breakfasts are also very good).
The bug was booked up the for the weekend, so tomorrow we're doing a long drive down to Sequoia National Park and King's Canyon.

September 15th - 17th: Exploring Yosemite and environs

Starting on Monday, our trip turned to some serious hiking and exporing the beautiful Yosemite National Park. Our tented cabins at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge were the perfect base for this. ( well perfect in location. Those who are dearest to me know I don't normally 'do' camping in any form, but accommodation options in the High Sierra area of Yosemite are limited). It turned out to be a beautiful spot though. The stars at night were amazing - so many it seemed as though every spare cm of space up there was crammed with them. We saw several satellites crossing the sky. Awesome.

Our first morning we tackled the spectacular Lembert Dome, literally across the road from the lodge. We climbed 800 feet in the 2 miles up to this amazing formation before scrambling up the granite rock face to the top. The previous evening we had seen hikers making their way across the dome, and I wasn't sure was up to it but here is the photo to prove otherwise ( I don't normally do photos either, but was so proud of myself, I made an exception). We had set off very early so were on our own up there, blown away by the views from the Dome across to the John Muir wilderness and miles and miles of peaks and forests.

Lembert Dome from the start of the hike

And at the top an hour later.

We took a burger lunch to the shores of the magnificent Tenaya Lake , and had another of those moments in this trip when the location even seemed to make the food taste better.
The afternoon was a 4 mile round trip to May Lake, also a very steep climb on a very warm afternoon (the weather has been absolutely flawless). There are several camps in the High Sierra which are established as a base for walk-in hikers. They use packhorses to transport in supplies to the camps which are a good day's walk apart. May Lake camp has an idyllic setting around the shores of this small lake, with tented cabins scattered throughout the lodge-pole pines. After the very hot climb up, it was fabulous to spend some time just sitting with my feet in the icy water, in complete silence of the lake. Magical.

Day 3 in the High Sierra, David had the chance to do some serious hiking without me, doing a 7 hour round trip to Glenaulin, another of the High Sierra camps. I made my way back down to Lee Vining to fill the car with petrol, do some laundry and catch up on internet after two days without. I also took the opportunity to just drive and found myself on the June Lake loop, a fishing, boating and (in winter) serious wintersports playground. One of the lakes on the drive, Silver Lake looked like it had stepped out of a picture postcard, and because David had the camera, that's what I had to satisfy myself with to remind me of this serendipitous discovery. Have a look at this pic from tripadvisor and you'll see what I mean.

After picking David up from his marathon walk, we made our way straight down the Tioga Pass Road to the Yosemite Valley for our next two days exploring the Park. Arriving at Camp Curry , which was established not long after the park was, I discovered there could be something worse than the very rustic tented cabins of Tuolumne Meadows Lodge, the tented cabins at Curry. While slightly more modern, our tent was tiny and one of around 700 such tent cabins squashed together in the precinct. The Camp was full, so there were people everywhere, cars everywhere, RVs everywhere, kids everywhere. I apologise if the comparison is spurious, but the image that kept coming to mind was that of a refugee camp.We had gone from the serenity of the High Sierras to my idea of hell in the Valley. The only high spot in a very miserable evening was while we sat eating tiny $8 pizzas, a family of racoons made their way out from their home under the dining hall and started sniffing around under the tables for scraps.
Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse (the internet was down in the camp as well!), when we turned in for the evening, we discovered that because our tent was positioned out the back of the dining hall we were to be inflicted with the sound of its refrigeration units all night. A very bad end to day 3.

Friday, September 18, 2009

September 14th:Secret marines business

Gunn House Hotel Motel in downtown Sonora
We woke this morning to the sound of rain, very unusual. As we travelled out of Sonora towards the eponymous Pass, the fog was thick and low, not very promising for viewing the scenery we had expected. Fortunately it began to lift the higher we got and by 8000ft we had a lovely day, blue skies with a little bit of light cloud cover. The drive was spectacular, the road a little scary at times as it hugged the curves, occasionally disappearing from sight without warning. A steeeep climb brought us to the pass at 9600ft, and promptly took a 25% downward swoop – as it happens going down can be even scarier than going up!!

An abandoned ski lodge on the Sonora pass Rd

A couple of surprising sights along the way included this abandoned ski lodge. However the most amazing sight of the day came as we dipped down towards Hwy 395. We passed a small sign saying: “Careful. Marines training in this area”. Well, we thought we might see a couple of guys in fatigues and buzz cuts running next to the road, but no. As we rounded a bend we could see a huge complex of buildings – mmm – I didn't know there was a town on this road! Next as we cam down into a valley the road suddenly went from bumpy and patched to a smooth, newly laid ribbon of bitumen. Around yet another bend we drove past an enormous parking lot of camouflaged Hummvees and trucks, loooots of young men in camouflage and buzzcuts and a sign warning “Careful low-flying helicopters may cause flying debris”. As it happened we had stumbled upon the US Marines Mountain Training Centre – very new and I suspect training marines for the tough mountainous conditions of Afghanistan. I hope you'll understand why I didn't take any photos, and I suspect if you tried to find it on Google Maps streetview, it might be blurred out.
Anyway, after that little bit of excitement the next was our planned sidetrip to the historic Ghost Town of Bodie. I had read about it many times, and knew that it had been the location for many spaghetti Westerns, and the main reason we had come over the Sonora Pass to take the back way to Yosemite was for this. It was well worth the time and miles – lots of people around, but an amazingly maintained historical site. The NPS likes to say that it is in a state of 'arrested decay', that is, they do the bare minimumto ensure the buildings survive, but this is no Sovereign Hill.

The ghost town of Bodie

We followed a back road ( the advantage of hiring an SUV) along the shores of Mono Lake, an awesome sight with it's enormous salt pillars, although its beauty is tempered by the fact that the lake is dying because of its feeder rivers being sucked dry by the water needs of Los Angeles.
Another spectacular drive up the Tioga Pass Rd (again to 9000+ feet) brought us to our destination for the next two nights – the rustic (I do not use the word lightly) Tuolumne Meadows Lodge in the High Sierra region of Yosemite National Park. Accommodation is in 'tented cabins' – essentially canvas tents with concrete floors. No electricity, a solid fuel heater and candles the only luxuries. Really dodgy showers and toilets had me swearing I wouldn't shower for the next 2 days, but the setting was spectacular – next to the Tuolumne River, with huge peaks towering sround us. After a reconaissance drive and walk along the meadows itself, we had a Corona by the river as the sun set over the peaks. Beautiful.

OK and the food stories of the day? Nothing much of significance: A typical American hotel breakast which was more like an afternoon tea, saved by freshly made waffles. Lunch was in the quaint highway town of Lee Vining at the local Frostie Diner - we stopped there because the local cops were having lunch - always a good sign. A bowl of Chilli for me and fish and chips for David suspiciously long way from the sea! The next few days we had decided to self-cater (although with no cooking facilities that wa going to mean a lot of sandwiches). The Yosemite concessioners have a monopoly on all food and accommadation in the park, meaning everything is over-priced and sometimes of dubious quality. $18 for a chicken caesar salad at the lodge dining room was enough to drive us to the 'grill' at the general store with hamburgers which were out about 2 minutes after ordering - never a good sign!

Frostie drive-in in Lee Vining

Monday, September 14, 2009

September 13th: Beautiful breakfast and gorgeous gold towns

Tonight we are in Sonora, an old gold-mining town from the 1849 gold rush era. Even better we are staying in the Gunn House Motor Hotel, built in 1850 and a hotel ever since. We started off this morning with a fantastic breakfast at the Wine Way Inn ( ) Our host Nick had prepared home-made granola served with luscious ripe strawberries, apricots and pineapples, then there were home made bakd beans with poached eggs and pork and pineapple sausage and finaly fresh home-made cherry and chocolate chip muffins. Nick is an expatriate Brit and we had a discussion about the peculiarities of the American way of eating breakfast. The tendency, rather than going back several times to at a breakfast like this in courses (granola and fruit, hot dishes, muffins and then maybe some more fruit) , is instead to pile a bit of everything on one plate. Sure enough after this conversation, a lovely American couple came in, went to the buffet and returned with Some granola, fruit, baked beans, eggs and sausage on a plate as well as a muffin. Perhaps my American readers can explain the custom to me?
Anyway breakfast was really special as you can see in the pics above (I'm sorry they're so large, I'm travelling with my son's ee book computer and have no idea how to compress pictures using his software! which also xplains the typos), It certainly set us up for our 3 hour drive across california slowly climbing as we approached the Sierra ranges. We arrived in Sonora, and as promised by myfriend dee, this little town is gorgous, with a main street retaining all it's original buildings, maany now containing antique shops!! We also made an accidntal discovery of the nearby Columbi historical State Prk, which is an original mining town in (mostly ) original state and with its buildings set up as they were originally used. We then drove on to Angel's Camp, yet another beautifully maintained gold rush town, with some 1930s deco buildings which replaced originals which burnt down. A lovely day all round, and now we are sitting on the verandah of the hotel as the sun sets, sipping a corona and contemplating our trip over the Sonora Pass tomorrow to the 'ghost town' of Bodie and hopefully some hot springs.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

September 12th: Leaving SF - off to Napa

tamales at the Farmer's Market
The Wine Way Inn - our accommodation in the Napa

This morning we started out early so that we could visit the Farmer's Market. There were thunderstorms and rain overnight, clearly an unusual event as everyone kept remarking on it. After the disappointment of Thursday morning's market, it was gear to be able to show David what a real one was like. We bought beautiful heirloom tomatoes, strawberries, natural set yoghurt in gorgeous pottery containers, fresh basil, and genuine mexican tamales, wrapped in cornhusks, to be heated up for dinner tonight. Yumm - with all our stores ready, we then headed off for a great day's meander thrugh the Napa Valley. A couple of wine-tastings, a visit to Bouchon Bakery for beautiful baquettes and their sublime lemon tart, as well as some 'yard sales', provided a great day. Tonight we are ensconced in a Victorian Arts and Craft Inn in Calistoga at the head of the valley. This little town was quite a revelation. Having encountered some sterile 'wine tourim' on the way up, Calistoga still very much has the feel of a wild west town in a way (well one with spas and inns.). Being a source of mineral springs and mud baths means it has it's fair share of day spas, but there are still a lot of the original buildings and small town feel to it. We're looking forward to a promised 5 course breakfast cooked by the owners Jll and Nck who have written a cookbook on Wine Country breakfasts. Nick has just returned from a couple days mushrooming near Yosemite and showed me some of his haul. As I write I'm sitting in the wood panelled lounge and dining area with the smell of mushrooms in the dehydrator permeating the house - scrumptious - hopefully there will be some for breakfast tomorrow!!

September 11th: Muir Woods and Berkeley

Our last day in SF we hired our car for the next fortnight's travel and took the opportunity to revisit Green Apple bookstore to pick up my puchases from an earlier visit. We also made 0ut way out to the Muir Woods, the famous redwood grove up the coast from SF. A beautiful experience, marred slightly by the presence of a table at the entrance of 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Apparently in the US there is some requirment to provide a 'first amendment" area where people can exercise their constitutional right to free speech. I have no objction to the principle, but in this case the 'in your face' aggression of these guys,particularly on the anniversary itself, was a bit much.

That was the lowlight of the day - the highlight was a tossup. The deer eating the greenery by the side of the path in Muir Woods, oblivious to the tourists, was one. Our return visit to Cheeseboard Pizza was another - no Chez Panisse I'm afaid, just a shared half-pizza of bell peppers, feta cheese and olive tapenade, accopanied by some fine live music. As well as great food, Berkeley is home to some great bookshops and I again bought too many books, still haven't worked out how I'm getting them back!

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 10th: The best laid plans...

No matter how much you plan for holidays, every day brings its own little twists and turns, and as a result its highlights and lowlights. As I mentioned in my last post, the plan today was to visit the Ferry terminal Farmer's Market. However when we arrived, rather than the acres of local farmers with mountains of produce that are there on a Saturday, we were met instead by three small stalls, with a limited selection of heirloom tomatoes and miniature vegetables. That was the lowlight, but the highlight of the day came as a direct result.

We caught my favorite cable car, the Powell-Hyde, which meanders around the streets of Russian Hill, with its laurel-lined streets and cute boutiques and restaurants. Hopping off when we saw a sandwich shop, we then made our way to the top of Lombard St where there is a small park and tennis courts overlooking the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. What a perfect calm window in the day: a lunch of nine-grain bread with turkey and cranberry, a ripe peach and diet snapple eaten in the shade of a huge tree on a calm warm day. A Pacific breeze was blowing a low covering of fog across the bridge and into the bay and we could hear foghorns as various ships called out to each other as they plied through the waters. Reading the paper, tennis balls plopping in the background, cable car bells dinging. No wonder I love this city so much.

September 9th: Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito, Little Italy

An early start this morning to catch several buses out to the Golden Gate Bridge Car park to begin our walk over the bridge and down tot he pretty little town of Sausalito. The bridge is a very easy walk and a great spot for spectacular views of SF and the bay. Unfortunately there are tiems when SF's famous fog makes a walk across the bridge not only cold and windy but pointless as well. Luckily the fog had cleared by the time we had arrived and our walk was warm and pleasant. A couple of F18s were doing circuits above San Francisco as we walked (something that seems to happen on a regular basis, I remember them from my last trip) a really spectacular sight. It took us about 2 hours to walk the 8kms and we rewarded ourselves with brunch at the Lighthouse Coffee Shop.

After a ferry back to Fisherman's Wharf we headed back to the hotel to change for dinner down in the North Beach district - know as Little Italy for the proliferation of Italian Restaurants started by its earliest inhabitants. Hayley and Ryan had recommended we try Sidoni's - a North Beach institution, Sidoni's slogan is " No Desserts. No Rservations" The meal was excellent - stuffed gnocchi in meat sauce for me and cheese tortellini in mushroom sauce for David. A nice Zinfandel (it's growing on me) completed a great meal (and I'm glad they don't offer dessert!!).

Another great day, tomorrow we're off to the Ferry Terminal's Thursday Farmer's Market, looking forward to seeing a range of late summer produce.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

September 8th: Give me ahome where the buffalo roam

Today was set aside for bookshops, but given we had done several of them yesterday, we started off the day with just one: Green Apple in the Richmond district. Now for those of you who know my shop, I have to tell you that this bookshop has almost as many cookbooks as I have: one entire wall the length of a deep shop is all cookbooks ( about half new releases). Sadly no Mastering the Art (etc) again, except in new hard cover, but there was so many other gems I barely minded. Green Apple is not cheap however, and this was a trip to tick off some of the books on my customer's wants list - Marcella Hazan, MFK Fisher, some vegan cookbooks etc. I had such a pile I had to leave them at the shop to return when we have a car to pick them up! This was our only shopping trip today ( in case you think that's all I do on my overseas trips).

Instead we jumped on the bus that takes you through the middle of the Golden Gate Park. Contrary to it's name, there is no physical connection between the GG park and the GG bridge, and you can't even see said bridge from said park. It is however a masterpiece of 19th century landscape and social planning. The park is very long (around 5 kms) and quite narrow (around 800 metres at its widest). There is something for everyone here and after a return visit to the tranquil Japanese Tea Gardens, we passed museums and galleries, an angler's lodge, polo field, golf course, model yacht lake and frisbee golf course on our (long) walk to the Buffalo Meadows, of which I had heard, but had not yet visited. The Buffalo Meadows were introduced in 1891 at a time when the American Bison was on the verge of extinction. They do have a breeding program here, but I felt a bit sad to see these magnificent creatures penned up in their smallish enclosure.

We continued our walk to the very edge of the park which comes out on the Pacific. Here there are also two dutch windmills, one recently restored and this day among the visitors were two characters who could have stepped out of Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the city": One in boxer shorts and ugg boots under a full-length bright red fake fur jacket, his lady friend in a full length Afghan. More characters!! A circuitous bus trip via the Palace of the Legion of Honour and we returned once more to our hotel. Phew we walked around 5 or 6kms and my feet are really starting to object - and we haven't even walked he bridge or got to Yosemite!!

September 7th - Shopping, more shopping and local colour

I am always depresssed by how fast the time goes once a holiday starts - tonight David and I were trying to remember all we had done each day, and already felt like we hadn't done all the things we had planned on. Part of this is because we are taking public transport everywhere, and this does eat into your time. It's outrageously cheap ($2 buys you unlimited distance on one bus or trolley car as well as a transfer to your next connection within an hour), and regular (no more than 20 minutes apart on most routes), but you do often have to take some circuitous routes to get to your destination.

On Monday I hit the Labor Day sales: I've always enjoyed the SF Thanksgiving Sales in past years, they're usually doorbusters which start at 6am in the morning. This holiday was much more low key, with the usual 10.30 opening for all stores. After spending a couple hours buying clothes and shoes we dumped our stuff off at the hotel (the biggest advantage of being located so centrally) and headed off to the Mission district to the cluster of bookshops around Church, Mission and 6th street. My main aim has been to stock up on copies of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. I've completely sold out of copies of this modern masterpiece following the release of the movie Julie and Julia (of which more later). The movie comes out in Australia on October 8th and I anicipate a similar demand for copies in Australia. Sadly I had no luck: Adobe Books which last year had a pile of them was sold out too. The proprietor of SF's first cookbook shop (which opened last year) apparenty bought him out of all MTAFC as well as any Julia Child's last month - bummer. I did have a great time wondering through Adobe and Aardvark.

I bought some nice books, we had a dubious lunch at a dive on Mission and then stumbled home for a pasta meal from Uncle Vito's on the corner. Here every night an elderly female set of twins in matching outfits, including cowboyhats, sits in a window seat and has their evening meals. Just a couple of the many, many characters encountered around SF. The panhandlers here, while depressing and sometimes overwhwelming in their number, are almost uniformly polite and seldom 'in your face'. The grips and conductors on the famous cable cars keep up a patter as they work and turn a blind eye to non-paying locals who can't face one more trip up the city's infamous hills (I can relate!) . Being Australian helps break the ice. A concierge told me that Australians are the always the friendliest visitors, and there's always someone who wants to visit, has visited or knows someone there. I guess maybe they say that to all the girls (!!) but it seems pretty genuine.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

September 6th: Alameda Antique Faire (sic)

Sunday morning saw an early start as we were headed over to the other side of San Francisco Bay for the legendary Alameda Anique Faire (it must be genuinely old if they have the 'e' on the end!!) Held on the first Sunday of the month at the former Alameda airforce base, Jonathan first told us about the fair when he was studying ast Berkeley last year. So when we knew we were going to be here at the beginning of September (oh ok to be honest I scheduled it that way), this was the first of our scheduled outings. We had to catch the ferry becasue SF's Bay BRidge was closed for the Labor Day weekend for seismic retrofitting, and this turned out to be a pleasant way to catch a view of the city and not have to negotiate traffic.

The Faire is Huuuuuge: hundreds of stalls, well-set out with an enormous range of bric-a-brac, genuine antiques and generally old stuff. The goods were generally not cheap - city antique store prices mostly, some of which made me think I need to put my prices up!! Not a lot of books, lots of vintage clothing, a smattering of kitchenalia, lots of ephemera ( David bought some great old maps, bottle & can openers and an old miniature pen-knife). After starting out at 9,30 strolling up one side of an aisle and down the other, we looked up at one stage realised we'd covered 5 aisles in 2 hours and had another 10 or so to go and rapidly changed our modus operandi: walk down the middle of the aisle and only check out the stalls that looked interesting. Straight past the furniture stores, jewellery stores and clothing stalls ( my girls would have gone mad over the old clothes - some really stunning stuff). As it was we finished at about 2pm. The day was really sunny and mild, but we bth amanged to get VERY sunburnt - not a good look.

If I was shipping a container back to Australia I could really have gone wild, but I wasn;t, so here is a photo of my carefully chosen buys.

After a ferry trip back to SF and we had a lovely light lunch at a taqueria in the ferry building, of a pork soft taco for me and vege one for David and a couple of strawberry aqua fresca. I love Meixcan food, but only as it is made in the US (and in Mexico I'm sure, not that I've tried it there). So far nothing I've tried in Australia comes close to recreating the flavours. I think perhaps it' the use of Masa (or cornmeal) dough used to make the tortillas etc, and the generous use of chili and coriander. whatever it is I've resolved to try taquerias wherever we go on this trip. We walked to the Fort Mason branch of Book Bay - Sf's Friends of the SF Library bookshop which I've mentioned here before.

Before heading home we paid a visit to Whole Foods - the organic and achingly hip supermarket chain. Great produce here, (very pricey) but more importantly they have the healthy equivalent of the old Sizzler self-serve buffett, where you pay$7.99 a pound for all sorts of ready-made meals stews, chili, curries, chicken, salads which you can mix and match for a convenient, fresh meal at home.

David was in bed by 8.30 after our monster day, I stayed up plotting out the city's bookshops on my transit map. Tomorrow it's Labor Day sales and some bookshops.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

San Francisco 5th September: San Francisco, Seafood and Sourdough

The longest birthday of my life (40 hours and counting) is drawing to a close in beautiful San Francisco. My children will attest to the fact that whenever I fly overseas I vehemently declare at the end of the trip " I'm not doing that again until I can fly business class". Sadly I will never be able to afford to fly business class and fortunately flying cattle-class is a little like giving birth - it's only once all the discomfort starts that you remember how much it hurts - but by then it's too late to go back! A word here to airport authorities all over the world ( particulary Sydney and LA, which I hate going through) come visit San Francisco to see how it's done: David and I walked off our plane at 12.48 and walked out into the arrivals hall, having passed through immigration, picked up our bags and cleared customs, at 1.05. A monster queue at Budget (it's a labour day holiday here) persuaded us to abandon plans to rent a car for a couple of days and catch the BART train, although this decision saw us walking from the train station up SF's notoriously steep hills dragging 34 kgs of luggage between us instead.

We're again staying at the budget-friendly Grosvenor hotel in the middle of the city and after a quick shower it was down to the Ferry terminal for an iced tea and a gaze at the bay (sadly the farmer's market was closed by the time we got there) and then a meal of fresh seafood accompanied by awesome sourdough bread down at one of the original seafood restaurants on Fisherman's Wharf. We also had a Napa Zinfandel - a sweet, pale pink rose-style wine which is very popular in California, although relatively unknown in Australia. Early to bed tonight for tomorrow we tackle the Alameda antique faire (sic). This huge Camberwell-style market is legendary is only on the first Sunday of every month, and is held at the decommissioned (d'uh) airforce runway which often features in Mythbusters. Not sure how much blogging about food I'll be doing from there, but you can be sure I'll find something.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

An oven for fiddlers - more Aga magic

One of the joys of having the Aga has been preparing meals for friends with serious Aga-envy (or just those who enjoy good food). The first weeks saw a procession of friends and family invited over for lunches and dinners. The Aga has a magnetic attraction, people tend to gather around it, enjoying the warmth, marvelling over the completely new way of cooking ( or otherwise - I still have several friends who thing I am seriously screwy for doing this). The bread has been a universal hit, and thanks to the Aga and No-Knead Bread flours we haven't bought a loaf of bread in 6 weeks. The one thing about the Aga that I have found though is that it requires a lot of moving things around - from the roasting oven to the simmering oven, from the boiling plate to the simmering plate and back again. Keeping things warm on the stove top, lifting lids up putting lids down. All of which prompted the comment from fellow bookseller Jeremy at a dinner meeting last month: " It's a stove for fiddlers, isn't it?" I couldn't agree more - no set and forget for me. Although I will qualify this - sometimes I do set and really do forget. I've been madly cooking up casseroles and lasagnas etc to stock the freezer for my kids while I'm away. On Monday afternoon I prepared a red wine beef casserole and a massaman curry from a batch of stewing steak and popped them in the simmer oven for a long cook. Next morning I walked into the kitchen at 8am looked at my list of things to do that day, realised I hadn't ticked off the casseroles, and had a sudden dawning realisation - I'd left them in the simmer oven for 15 hours!! I can report that the meat was (literally) fall apart tender, in fact a little longer in there and I could have made good baby food. Oh *&^% and I've just remembered a loaf of bread's in the oven!

OK bread is a little dark on the top, but otherwise ok. I'm off to the US this coming Saturday and will be blogging from San Francisco, Yosemite & environs. Looking forward to buying lots of kitchenalia treasures for the shop, stocking up on copies of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in anticipation of the movie Julie and Julia coming out on October 8th, and renewing my acquaintance with the farmer's market.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Age Epicure Must-Have Cookbooks

I can;t believe it's been a month since my last post. Time flies when you're preparing another trip overseas and spending lots of time with an Aga ( of which more soon). Just had to let you know about the shop's (small) mention in Melbourne's The Age Epicure section today:
The writer Richard Cornish contacted me about a book that they needed for the photos - Chez Panisse's Menu Cookbook - and then very kindly gave us a mention. Every time one of these 'Best cookbooks' articles comes out, my regulars get offended on my behalf that the shop doesn't appear, so this was a treat.

It's an interesting article and I agree with most of the 10 'must-haves' - Certainly many of them are best-sellers here:

1. The Cook's Companion, Stephanie Alexander: I'm not surprised that this is no.1, it really is the 'Bible' in Australian kitchens. Mine gets a workout several times a week. A lot of people ask for the first edition with the orange spine. Apparently there were some errors in it that were fixed up for the latest edition, but there's something charming about the earlier editions that I think is lost in the 'stripey one' as it's sometimes referred to in my shop!

2.French Provincial Cooking, Elizabeth David: Always a perennial favourite in the shop, although I sell as many of Mediterranean Food and French Country Cooking. Currently I'm lucky enough to have a scarce first edition of French Provincial Cooking in stock ( as well as of The Book of Mediterranean Food).

3. Essentials of Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan: I'm so glad this made the list - Marcella is relatively unknown in Australia - but her books are classic, truly authentic and unapologetic in their use of traditional methods and ingredients. According to a recent article I read in the New York Times, while Marcella is the brains behind the cookbook, because of her difficulty with English, in fact her husband wrote the books themselves. She would go through the recipe and explain the steps and he would translate them and put them into recipe form. Fascinating woman and a great great couple of cookbooks. (Essentials is an amalgamation of The Classic Italian and The Second Classic Italian Cookbooks)

4. A New Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden: Walks out the door! If Stephanie's is the bible of Australian kitchens, this is the bible of Middle Eastern cooking. I sell as many of the original as I do the 'New'. Great, great book!

5. The Complete Asian Cookbook, Charmaine Solomon: Would walk out the door if I could get enough copies!! As with many of these titles, it is often the original that people seek out, not newer, updated versions.

6. Good Things, Jane Grigson: While Elizabeth David is widely read, Jane Grigson is a bit of a dark horse in food writing terms. She is greatly admired and collected and is as good a writer as Elizabeth David, but just not as widely known. I was thrilled to see her make this list, because she frequently misses out. I would however have thought that Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book
would have been up there ahead of Good Things as a classic must-have.

7. Thai Food, David Thompson: Not one I know a lot about, except that it was featured on ABC's The Cook and The Chef a couple of months ago. The Thai book I sell most of is Mogens Bay Esbensen's Thai Cuisine.

8. Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, Alice Waters: Now anyone who has read my blog or heard me rave about Chez Panisse knows how thrilled I was that this book was in the top 10. I think the books are underrated and certainly not as widely known as I think they deserve to be in Australia. I sell more of these overseas, but hopefully this will change and more people will be introduced to the Alice Waters ethos.

9. White Slave, Marco Pierre White: Now the article shows White Slave, but mentions White Heat, which I think is meant to be the No. 9. White Slave is White's 2006 ghost-written biography. As Richard mentions in the article, White Heat makes no claims to be a cookbook, but is inspiring nonetheless. He's also famous as being the man who made Gordon Ramsay cry (when Ramsay was an apprentice) - all power to him I say, although maybe he is the reason Ramsay is such a pig!

10. Roast Chicken and Other Stories, Simon Hopkinson: Another one I'm not all that familiar with, but that's the beauty of these kinds of articles - they inspire me to keep reading and learning!!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

JTAC Episode 7: Introducing Mrs Doubtfire

OK blame it on the frustrated novelist in me, I just had to leave you in suspense at the end of the last blog. As it turns out when my daughter rang me in the gym to say the Aga had turned itself off she was only half-right: the burner had turned off because the Aga had reached its operating temperature , the pilot light was still going and it has been running smoothly ever since. I have had a pretty big learning curve (when the pasta water boils over my first instinct is to reach for a knob to turn the heat down under it, umm wrong, you have to take the pot away from the heat) and have christened the Aga Mrs Doubtfire - because beneath the lovely warm English accented exterior is an implacable, solidly built, occasionally fiery creature who bites you when you're not paying attention (first on my to-buy list from the Aga shop a really good set of oven mitts!).

An English writer says about cooking on the Aga that you don't set the oven temperature you find it - that you learn where your ovens are hottest and coolest and adjust your cooking habits accordingly. Thus a roast pork with fennel roasted in the very hottest part of the roasting oven ( the top rack) is moved down a couple of rungs after an inital browning to sit at a heat of around 220. Cakes cannot be cooked in the oven on their own, they either have to have a Cold Plain Shelf (a sheet of metal which is kept out of the oven until needed) which shields it from the intense heat of the top and lowers the temperature around the cake to 180, or you cook them at the same time as something is cooking above it.

I've had some great sucesses and failures in the short week Mrs Doubtfire has been operating:
  • Baking is for the most part a delight. Biscuits and muffins are fantastic, but everything cooks in a much shorter time, even using the cold plain shelf, so you really need to set a timer and keep an eye out. I burnt a banana cake which was at the same time uncooked in the very middle by putting a loaf tin too close to one side of the oven and leaving it in too long. The oven top is a fantastic place to prove dough for the bagels I made last Sunday and also for melting chocolate and butter for brownies or crumbles, or anything at all really.
  • I'm struggling so far to work out the best way to do slow braises and casseroles. What is know as the simmering oven (at the bottom) is actually really only a warming oven. The temperature sits at around 90 - 100 degrees, really too cool to keep anything simmering. I discovered this the night before last when I put a traditional bolognese sauce in it to simmer overnight, only to open it the next morning and find it had not simmered at all but just stayed very warm.
  • Cooked Sunday breakfast is fantastic - bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes in a roasting pan near the top of the oven. Eggs are broken directly onto the simmering hot plate (well not directly, but onto a magical material called Bake-o-Glide, a silicon sheet) with the lid closed over the top of them - kind of a cross between fried and baked eggs.
  • The only major disappointment is that the Aga does not pump out as much heat into the kitchen as I had expected. Make no mistake the kitchen is always warm, but the warmth doesn;t spread out much beyond it. This is actually a direct consequence of the Aga's magnificent engineering, it is so well-insulated and thermally efficient that all the heat is retained within the oven itself.

My cat by the way just loves the Aga - he sits directly in front of it, looking slightly bemused - he knows its warm, but he doesn;t know where the warmth is coming from. Usually he positions himself in front of the ducted heating vent and gets a good blow-wave at the same time, but now he gets the same result without having his fur ruffled - magical!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

JTAC episode 6: A Grand Folly?

You may recall a couple of posts back I was writing with much excitement as the Agaman was installing and doing the gas conversion on the Aga. Well after 10 hours of work, at 7pm on a Friday night John finished the job, fired up the Aga, gave me instructions on operating and left. I felt a little like a mother going home with her first-born: Don't leave me alone with this thing! The gas burner was roaring away (and I was imagining the next gas bill) when we went to bed and the mercury was slowly making its way up to the all important sweet spot between two lines on the temperature gauge at which the Aga needs to sit. During the night I got up once and walked into a kitchen warm and toasty, then early in the morning I got up again (I told you it was like having a new baby!) to silence and cold in the kitchen - the burner & the pilot had gone out! Well as they say in the South African classics, lots of 'snot en traane' (snot & tears!) followed as David & Jonathan together tried to relight the pilot & I watched on and gave useless advice. I phoned the Agaman who came early next morning (Sunday) pronounced that some grit had blocked the gas line into the pilot, cleaned it out, relit it and left.

So no Aga breakfast for us, but I made plans for soup once it had got up to operating heat. About 6.30 on Sunday night I started preparing for a roasted pumpkin and sweet potato soup, cheese scones and an apple & blackberry crumble. Everything was going swimmingly: pumpkin and sweet potato were in the hottest spot in the top of the Roasting Oven, cheese scones cooking below them in next to no time, apples were stewed, butter was melting on the Aga top for the crumble when CLICK! the burner turned off and an ominous silence ensued. The bloody thing had gone out again! I rang John, who swore, apologised and promised he'd be there first thing Monday morning. Around about this time there were two things going through my mind: "Oh my God this thing is going to turn into the biggest folly of my life" and "There's still all that stored heat in there - what can I make?" Ignoring the former I commenced baking like a maniac, biscuits, a couple of cakes, by the time I went to bed that night we had had a great dinner and all the biscuit tins and cake tins were full (and the Aga was still warm, damn I should have made meringues!)

Next morning John returned, spent even more time dismantling and cleaning out the burners, told me to pray and that he was leaving on Wednesday to do some Aga work in the country. With trepidation I went to the shop and rang up a couple of times during the day to ask Pippa if it was still on - "Yes Mum it's still on". After closing for the day I went to the gym and was in the change room when my mobile rang and a teary voice said "Mum I think the Aga's gone off again. The burner's not going and it's making a clicking noise". The whole time I was in the gym (luckily it was boxing!) I was on the verge of tears "#$%^ what am I going to do, I've just spent several thousand dollars, and I'm going to end up with nothing". Even worse I knew that John was not going to be able to come in the next day to fix it. You know that horrible sinking feeling you get sometimes when bad things surround you? Well that pretty much sums up my mood as I left the gym.

JTAC Episode 5: elbow grease

Last time I posted I wrote about the Aga being moved into place in my kitchen. The Agaman made a time to come back in ten days to do the conversion, and in the interim I spent almost every spare moment cleaning, repairing and repainting. Carly said that every time she rang I seemed to be doing something with the Aga, and indeed we had one long conversation during which (with the phone wedged under my chin) I gave the top and sides their second coat of paint! Pics below are all before shots, I'm holding back on afters until all the work is done on the surrounds so you can see it in all its glory!

First job was to clean - using lots of very hot water and a bit of Gumption on the baked on food. A bigger job was derusting the ovens - despite my apprehension when it arrived, the Aga is actually very sound, and in fact was only showing the kind of oxidisation you would expect after being outside for a year. After I spent a few hours with a steel brush, David discovered that a wire brush attachment on a drill does a really thorough job, (but makes a BIG mess of the kitchen). Both ovens were then oiled with vegetable oil and looked, if not new, at least 100% better than before. Next we had to attend to the top: what we thought was rust was in fact years of baked-on food and flaking paint, and was removed with LOTS of elbow grease. The sides of the oven did have rust patches ( as you can see in last post's photos) which we treated with a neutraliser and then painted with a gloss enamel. We also repainted the top with a couple of coats of the old-style pot belly paint and then at John's advice I rubbed it over with a little Vaseline - apparently it's what all the 'old birds' used to use.
All this was completed just in time for John's arrival last Friday to install a flue and the gas conversion kit as well as replacing some of the parts which were beyond redemption.