Friday, 31 May 2013

Researching Guildford

It's ironic that it was after I completed the first edit of my novel and sent it off for feedback that I decided to visit the town that is central to my fictional community.

Guildford is now just an old suburb of Perth, located to the east along the bank of the Swan river, but it once played a greater role in the foundations of this colony. While Fremantle was the colony's port and Perth the administrative district, Guildford was the agricultural centre providing the link to the settlements and farming districts further inland.

As the railway gained prominence linking Fremantle with York and the south west of state this function was taken over by Midland. Guildford was populated by a series of well-to-do families who wanted a rural setting in proximity to the business district in Perth, Guildford benefits from being encircled by the Swan River to the north and the Helena River to the south as it encouraged the classic village community feel that the town centre had been designed to emulate.

Though now dissected by the railway, in the centre of the settlement stands Stirling Square with the latest version of St Matthew's Anglican church in the centre (it was built in 1873 after a hurricane the previous year completely destroyed the old church).

Between the square and the river was prime real estate and in 1897 Charles Crossland used some of it to build a sprawling house named Riversleigh. Several of the house in this part of Guildford were built up on hills or plateaus to get them off the flood plain below. Riversleigh is on the market now if you have a spare couple million. 

 However its views aren't as spectacular as those of St Charles' Seminary down the road.

 This house even features a shaded lawn perfect for a crinolined picnic complete with dapper gentlemen crawling around the lawn being ponies to a series of small pantalooned children.

Directly under Barker's Bridge  from there is Moulton Landing which was the original cargo depot for Guildford in the days before the train line was established when the river provided the chief means of transportation around the colony.

Heading north out of the town centre I was pleased to note I quickly hit vineyard territory where it felt as though every spare acre was given over to growing this necessary commodity. In fact, even in the early days of the colony, as the numbers of convicts and free settlers grew, so too did the demand for colonial wine. Today, in places where the crop was not grapes it was row upon row of olive trees with the occasional paddock of orange trees thrown in. This was one of the most interesting aspects of Guildford as I simply wasn't expecting it. I wasn't expecting so many olive trees. In Fremantle I expect every second tree to be an olive as there are healthy Italian, Greek and Maltese communities who utilise them to make their own olives and olive oil, but not in Guildford.

Following the river as best I could, I determined the place where I'd located my characters houses and received a few worried looks from fishermen as I slid down the muddy bank to photograph the course of the water.

On such a beautiful day, I wouldn't mind having this view outside my bedroom window, though I'm not sure I'd want to go boating and purposely fall in...

Sunday, 26 May 2013

To satisfy a craving... Yum Cha

Living in London, one of the things I missed was good Chinese food.
We had brilliant Indian (actually Sri Lankan) at the end of our street, there was a great Thai chain in the city, but Chinese cuisine was more of a problem.
There was a restaurant at our local shopping centre, but it was atrocious. the type of Chinese that you used to get here 30 odd years ago.

Discussing it with C, we would go crazy discussing the Yum Chas/Dim Sums we missed from home.

Between us, we would reminisce over the fluffy buns, the rice flour rolls,

banana wrapped sticky rice, the squid tentacles,

 the almond jelly, deep fried sesame balls... I could go on.

Together we would drive our taste buds wilds, but it wasn't until last weekend that I finally got around to satisfying that craving. You see the problem with Yum Cha is that you need a decent number of guests in order to get an adequate variety of dishes in order to make it a successful feast.

Then and only then is it possible to order everything in sight and gorge oneself silly.

Having satisfied my craving, the next challenge is to host one of our own, making the selection of steamed dishes ourselves.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

A little port called Fremantle

Fremantle is not my home.
I don't know it like the back of my hand.
Not like my mother does and my grandfather does. Granddad moved here 60 years ago and never left, Mum was born and bred here and it took her 20 odd years before she left.

As I was growing up, I knew of Fremantle as two separate places joined disjointedly somewhere in the middle. It had one side, where the markets and Kakulas are, another entered from the Canning Hwy side, which ended with the Woolstores and Clancy's. Oh, and then there was the old Maritime Museum, stuck somewhere on the edge near the Round House and an old jetty.
It wasn't until I started working there that my disjointed memories slotted together like jigsaw pieces and gave me a better understanding of Fremantle as a whole. But it was still a limited view. I saw the main streets the bus travelled down, or the route we took to travel between the two sides of the town. But I only got tantalising glimpses of the old ornate buildings hiding down the side streets.

Even now, I still get distracted by the pretty buildings that appear out of nowhere and could rapidly lose myself in the maze that still is Fremantle's streets. In an attempt to overcome this, and because I had some architectural research I wanted to do, I left the house I'm sitting, on a proper bike and headed into Freo, on the most scenic, least up-hill route I could think of.

Fremantle played a huge part in the World Wars, being one of the ports through which ships of soldiers and supplies left to play their part. The efforts of these soldiers, and the families during their bit on the home front is remembered at Monument Hill, a monument on a hill, overlooking Fremantle and her harbour.

Climbing up for the view, I had to wonder, what had been there before. After all, Fremantle was founded in 1829 and the surrounding area was filling up with houses as the Federation was being celebrated, 18 years before the war ended and fallen soldiers deserved commemorating. 
One of the beautiful old houses at the bottom of the hill. Unfortunately, one that it  is nigh impossible to get in to despite it being a museum.
Old Maps tell me it was an obelisk, which seems pretty unbelievable until you remember we are standing in a British colony and they seemed to have a penchant for Obelisks. I doubt if it was an important one, but then again, it could be sitting in storage at the museum. 

While the view was impressive, what was more beautiful was the graffiti on the bus stop at the bottom of the hill. Beautifully rendered, it was a more poignant reminded of the lives lost that the monument above, because it gave it a face, and because of the poppies that remind me of John McCrae's poem that would be read every year at school on Remembrance day.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


What I love most about the photo above, is not that it incorporates the bus stop and the monument on the hill above, but that the little old lady sitting at the bus stop is very likely of Eastern European descent and was part of the waves of immigrants who arrived in Fremantle after the second world war. What stories does she hold of her first few years in this port city? Did she arrive as a school girl and find herself immediately inserted into a local school where everyone spoke a language she didn't understand? What did she expect to find here when she did arrive? Was the reality anything like her expectations? How difficult was it adjusting from the food and culture and lifestyle she was used to? My own family were shocked on their arrival in 1952 to find that the daily necessity that is coffee had yet to arrive in this outpost. Instead, a family used to frequent Turkish coffees was expected to survive on coffee essence, a compound made of chicory and tasting nothing like the real stuff.
And yet places like this existed:
'Coffee Palace' was actually used to indicate alcohol-free hotels, built in response to the temperance movement.
Riding down the hill into Fremantle, it was impossible not to detour passed the Fremantle Arts Centre, an expansive and beautiful building that used to be a lunatic asylum. Part monastery, part Knole House I wonder what the history of the building is; what went on behind such an unusual facade? When did it cease to be an insane asylum for I don't remember it as such? Thank goodness for the Fremantle Heritage festival next month.

Heading back into the centre of Fremantle from here it made sense to take Adelaide St where I knew there was an old church and an old house which I vaguely remember my mother telling me had a less than rosy past. However when I got there, what was of more intrigue was the proclamation Moreton Bay Fig planted in the middle of the road, and the  giant Celtic cross beside it.

Why had I never noticed these before? Why was October 21 1890 not a date I knew, the granting of a responsible government to the colony of Western Australia? Who exactly was the man who gave his name to Marmion St?

Turning west toward Kakulas Sister I stocked up before going in search of the site of Manning's Folly, an extravagant construction of glass built in the middle of the 19th century, but demolished in 1928. Wandering through the streets west of Market street you begin to stumble upon a multitude of hotels, all festooned with the typical Edwardian balconies and decorative façade  and now either containing shops and offices or remaining the watering holes they always were.

They all date from the turn of the century when Fremantle was one of the international gateways to this colony, before air travel, before a small tin shed began to transform into the International Airport as we know it today.  Imagined in their heyday, they are an impressive, welcoming sight to behold upon arrival in this distant place.

On this occasion, its the little details I look for and revel in, the detailing which reminds me of traipsing around London, eyes pointed skywards; the little gargoyle sitting on the Central Chambers, the fine lettering above the door of the P&O Hotel.

Knowing the coast was nearby I turned my bike westwards still further in search of the rippling line in the pavement that delineated the original coastline and the extent of land that even here European settlers had claimed back from the sea.

I can understand big, old cities like London reclaiming land from the river, but architecturally, Perth was a new colony. Surely there was enough land already without the need to claim more from the sea. What was the reason behind this different coastline? Was it an aesthetic desire to straighten the coastline as they did the Swan River? Was it simply a repercussion of deepening the harbour?

On my way to this meandering path, it was impossible not to pass through the whaling tunnel under the Round House and stop near to Bather's beach looking out to sea towards Carnac Island. It was a beautiful view and one that it is nice to think was enjoyed 100/150 years ago as workers at the whaling station paused to wipe their brow or peer out to sea looking for the next haul they needed to process.

Fremantle is still not home to me, but it's nice to feel I've taken the time to make its acquaintance properly and to feel there's still more I want to learn about this beautiful port town.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Special Salad (Ful Mesdames)

My grandfather was born and grew up in Alexandria, a thriving city on the north coast of Egypt, but as part of his work or military service he was sent south to the area around Cairo. I never remember what his work there consisted of for the climax of the story was never that so much as the journey north again as he and his colleagues headed back to Alexandria.
It was a journey made by train with one necessary pit stop. Near to one of the stops there was an eatery and it was here that the young men would jump off the train and fill themselves with a huge helping of Ful Mesdames before racing back in time to catch the next train.

Ful Mesdames is an easy dish, and one that I know Granddad has made for the family on several occasions, but I think its appearance as just a bowl of beans did nothing to tempt me to try it.  It was only whilst living in London that I learn to fully appreciate its simplicity and its well rounded textures and flavours.
It comes in three economic variations. The lowest (if I remember correctly) is just the beans, the second, served with a hardboiled egg and a little salad, the third with a sunny-side-up egg and a more varied salad.

Ful refers to Fava Beans which is the correct ingredient to use. I can't stand their texture so instead I use a can of lentils or black eyed beans. Use what you like, but chickpeas don't work. These are drained and dumped into a hot saucepan already containing a good slug of oil and one (or two) cloves of garlic, finely chopped. Before they cook too much add about two teaspoons of cumin (I keep adding until it smells and tastes about right) and a squeeze of lemon juice (I love the flavours to be intense and I use the juice of half a lemon). Cook until the beans soften and heat and the flavours are incorporated.

If you have enough liquid in the beans crack two eggs onto the beans and cook it until the whites are set but the yolks are still runny. Otherwise, fry the eggs.

When the beans are cooked divide them between two bowls. Top each one with an egg.
Cover the eggs and beans with a generous portion of salad and serve. The salad consists of shredded iceberg lettuce or baby spinach, finely diced tomato and finely diced or crumbled salty fetta (Danish or Persian fetta seems to provide the best contrast of flavours).

Eat with a spoon and remember to pierce the egg yolk so it mixes with the cooked beans.

And once you've got this down pat, what's to stop you adding your own ingredients and just running with it? That's how it came to be referred to as 'Special Salad' by one friend.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Something new... (Chocolate Panna Cotta)

In celebration of my mother's birthday this year, we decided to hold another 'something new' dinner.
This meant that everyone was expected to bring a dish they'd NEVER made before; that dish they'd always wanted to make but never quite got around to.

We'd held such evenings in the past, during the course of which it had emerged that certain people had trialled their planned recipe before, or asked their other half to make it instead so they could still say they'd never made it before.

So, this year the invitation contained an added clause:
No cheating. No testing the dish beforehand, no testing it by another family member. We've heard it all before. We know your tricks.
I must admit, it was interesting listening to the recipes coming in, and the extreme problems some people were having getting their heads around this idea of 'something new.' I don't know if they had never flicked through a cookbook, stumbling upon recipes that intrigued them, jotting them down in the hopes of finally attempting them, or just so used to their own repertoire of creating dishes with what was available and what they felt like that the idea of following a recipe had come to feel incredibly foreign.

It all worked out for the best though as we had a medley of flavours and ingredients, with everyone providing something a little different and a little unusual but for the most part incredibly delicious.

From top to bottom, left to right (I missed half of the correct names):
Iranian Potato and Burghel, Plain Rice
Sesame Spiniach, smoked potatoes, chicken biryani
Mexican baked chicken dish, Smoked ribs, Sourdough
Stuffed Squid, beans, Moroccan Beef Stew

There were a few dishes that didn't work as well as was hoped, but with the selection on hand, this didn't matter, and didn't impact upon the exchange of requests for recipes.

With so many mains provided, Mum and I focussed instead upon making a sufficient number of desserts to feed the hoards, not a difficult task by any stretch, but one that actually required more preparation that usual.
The reason is that between us we have an amazing repertoire of desserts, and if we haven't tested a recipe yet it is usually an indication that it either isn't interesting or it doesn't contain enough chocolate.

Trifle fell into both categories, so to rectify that we substantially adapted the concept.

  • Instead of a sponge we used a home-made fluffy chocolate gateau, (well, when you have one stashed in the freezer it makes sense to drench it in alcohol and use it). 
  • Instead of packet jelly: berries in a home-made pomegranate jelly (the pomegranate tree in the garden has exploded with balls of colour and there are only so many you can eat).
  • Instead of custard: two types of pannacotta, one dark, the other white infused with orange (basically I couldn't be arsed making proper custard; been there done that, unexciting). 

I've never made a pannacotta before as I hate playing with gelatine, but Donna Hay's recipe (in her chocolate book but also available here) is not only incredibly easy, but was also very adaptable. It didn't seem to mind if you changed the strength of the chocolate used or add a good gurgle of liqueur to the cream. The cream scalded beautifully and it jelled perfectly without feeling rubbery or tasting gelatinous.

What was tasted was a flavoured smooth creaminess that went down like a dream. And I should know as an extra is always made, just to be sure...

It's definitely a recipe I need to make again. Not necessarily to share...

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Putting two and two together.

There is a photo on my grandfather's wardrobe, a black and white photo of a tall lanky young man leading a shorter woman who's gloved hand rests in the crook of his elbow. She is a short dumpy curvaceous young woman dressed in white and carrying a big bouquet of what look to be equally white flowers. The solemnity of the occasion is born out by the expressions of the young couple, neither one smiling or looking particularly happy at the thought of their future together.

This belies the true romance of the relationship with my grandfather bridging class divides before following his young love to Perth from Alexandria, Egypt. Once here, he was obliged to support his mother and younger brother before he was in a financial position to offer his young bride a home and future together. What is perhaps saddest is that in spite of all the obstacles they faced to be together, they were only married for 10 years before she passed away from breast cancer.

While I am intrigued by the romantic story of their love, as I am with any of my grandfather's stories, on this occasion I am more interested in the odd familiarity of the bride's outfit. It is a photo I have seen before, glancing up at it on almost every occasion in which I enter my grandfather's bedroom, and I recognise the hat worn by the bride. It is a horned cloche of soft white feathers, now spotted with the occasional black feather and currently residing in the depths of the wardrobe, wrapped in cloth and protected from the other headgear crammed into the same box.

What I did not expect to recognise was the dress. Having raided my grandfather's wardrobes and wealth of stories, I knew what dresses had survived and alternatively which dresses had not. However upon a more recent examination of the photo, I realised that I recognised the fabric. In fact I had my own photos of that exact fabric from another gown in my grandmother's collection, a delicate cream satin embroidered throughout with leaves picked out in gold thread. Its foolish really, because I had only recently done a talk on the sensibility of re-wearing one's wedding dress or altering it so that it became more versatile to the social activities of the bride's life. I had just failed to apply this logic to my sensible and very stylish grandmother.

 This superb fabric is in the shape of a figure hugging evening dress with a wide halter-neck strap and the weightiest bustle I had ever come across. Sewn flat across the bottom was an enormous bow and mini train completely lined with cream satin. On the top of the hips there are a few small darts emphasising the shapely curve of my grandmother's figure and a quaint lapel along the line of the décolletage  This new dress appeared in one photo from her life, before disappearing into the back of a wardrobe to reappear 50 years later in photos of her grandchildren.  The dress is now fraying under one arm and there is a slight stain on the front, but it is impossible not to appreciate in turn the beauty of the article and the style for which our grandmother was renowned.

Monday, 6 May 2013

A familiar object.

I love correcting lessons in history.
Correcting teachers who mention the wrong Queen Mary,
Correcting speakers who reference the wrong historic house,
Correcting movies (my favourite), and
Correcting exhibitions which date fashion history incorrectly (my pet area of expertise).
It's not that I like the superiority of being able to prove I'm right (ok, maybe a little) but it's that I absolutely detest people being fed incorrect history. I'ts hard enough to get people to cultivate an interest in the subject that when you do manage to get someone to absorb meaningful information it should at least be correct. Interesting, maybe even unbelievable, but at least correct.
Condensed I don't mind. Wrong I will not tolerate.

In a similar vein, I like sharing my knowledge with people. Entreating them to see the wonder and beauty and excitement that I see. Providing them with the context with which to better appreciate and understand the things before them. Just ask those friends who have been dragged through museums and art galleries.

The latest example was at the Azelia Ley Homestead Museum in Hamilton Hill. Having already succeeded in confusing the poor ladies on duty (see this post) my mother and I proceeded to explain one of the unlabelled pieces of linen pinned into a display case.

It was a shiny white bow and if you looked closely on one of the tails was the delicate embroidery of a goblet. The ladies had never really questioned its purpose assuming that it was simply part of a lady's wardrobe. In fact it was more delightful than that, if slightly misplaced in the master bedroom of this house.

This delicate white bow was part of a boy's First Holy Communion outfit. It was embroidered with the host and chalice and was worn around the upper arm with the ubiquitous sailor suit that all small boys seem to have been dressed in in the first half of the 20th century. And it looked incredibly familiar. Partially because less than a sennight earlier we had unearthed my grandfather's own arm band, little white gloves and miniscule book. No doubt this was the arm band of my great uncle when he had received holy communion in Alexandria, Egypt in the mid 1930s.

Mum (the lapsed Catholic amongst us) was unaware of how widespread the tradition was.
Were the Mannings catholic and therefore participants in this ritual? Was this ritual, carried out on the other side of the world, accompanied with the physical paraphernalia that our family had experienced in Egypt?

It was an interesting discovery and I like to think I'm, bit by bit, adding my piece to the history of this city. Now just to forward a copy of the delightful photo above to the museum to illustrate the way the bow was worn (and reinforce the twee outfits of the time). 

Sunday, 5 May 2013

History Re-written

This afternoon, as part of the Heritage Festival on in Perth at the moment, my mother and I traipsed down to Hamilton Hill to visit the Azelia Ley Homestead Museum. It is a beautiful house situated within luscious parklands and it is notable how much time and energy and love has gone into restoring this house for the public's understanding.

Mum and I were interested in the history of the place, the history of one of the founding families of Fremantle, but of more interest was the family rumour of our own personal connections with some of the artefacts preserved therein.
Perhaps I should explain; my mother's uncle was involved with the City of Cockburn's council and when they were assembling the collection at Azelia Ley Homestead it is said within the family that he raided his late mother's linens for suitable pieces. It was known that these pieces had no connection with the house but that instead they were of a suitable age to improve the understanding of the house and times in which it was occupied.

However, saying that, the story also goes that a motivating factor for the use of his mother's possessions was that her initials matched those of the unmarried Azelia Ley, thereby making my great-grandmother's trousseau appear as though it instead had belonged to Azelia. This wouldn't be a problem if the donation were acknowledged somewhere within the museum. Instead the ladies manning the house saw the initials and immediately assumed what my great uncle had wanted them to assume: that these pillow cases were a part of Azelia Manning's trousseau for her marriage to Jack Ley. This is despite their familiarity to my mother (who has never entered the Azelia Ley Homestead museum before), and the fact that the pillow cases are classic european pillow cases and therefore highly unlikely to have belonged to an Australian girl of English heritage. They are far more likely to have belonged to a Maltese woman from Alexandria who insisted upon speaking Italian.

Sadly what this means is not just that these pillowcases have acquired a history incongruous with their real history  but that because of their presence within the Azelia Ley collection they have lost their true history to all but a small handful of family members who remember the donation and the reactions it caused between brothers. The ladies at the house voiced this concern, asking whether they should be remembering and conveying the true providence of these pieces, for I fear my mother and I did unintentionally confuse them as she recognised various items from her own childhood. But to offset this loss of history, my great grandmother's pillow cases are being used to educate , to increase our understanding of the history of the city in which we live, and hopefully to preserve some of this history before it disappears completely.

A small part of me wonders what would have happened to those pillow cases if they had remained in the family. Would we have recognised the initials? Would we have cared? Would we have lovingly cherished them or would they have just remained in a box hidden at the back of a wardrobe, at the bottom of a glory box? Has my great uncle actually given them a better future than we could have offered if they had remained with us?

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