Turnips—the village idiot of vegetables?

Sydney’s Covid lockdown has brought roots to the fore. Hairdressers have been closed for months so everyone’s roots are showing. Cafés and restaurants are take-away only. Keen to support our local favourites, and desperate to get off the hamster-wheel of planning, shopping for, and preparing home-cooked meals, we’re indulging in take-away big time.

It’s no secret that I’m very fond of root vegetables. I have a chapter in The Book of Thistles called Forgotten Roots. It was a take-away dinner last week that got me thinking specifically about turnips. (Chinese turnip omelette from the Blue Eye Dragon in Pyrmont was the curiosity-provoking dish.) I wondered if there wasn’t more to the turnip than a synonym for dopiness. More to the village idiot of vegetables.

The Blue Eye Dragon’s Chinese turnip omelette

I started making notes.

The turnip, Brassica rapa, is one of the earliest cultivated vegetables. In the fourth-century BCE turnips were one of the foods that sustained the poor of ancient Athens. And they were an important food for the Romans. From the classical world the turnip spread east to China—and elsewhere.

Turnips taste better and are more versatile when they are picked young and small in late spring or early summer. There’s less you can do cooking-wise with the bigger, older ones.

A German cookbook published in 1485 gave recipes for preparing turnips and other vegetables. Less than a century later turnips—along with carrots and parsnips—were introduced to England by Flemish weavers. Initially grown as livestock fodder, they made the transition to the table, but were—perhaps still are?—associated with farm labourers, immigrants, and consumers of low socio-economic status. Although peasant cuisine is now fashionable, I’ve noticed that turnips are rarely on the menu.

From John Gerard, Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, published circa 1597

In 1776 the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith (of The Wealth of Nations fame) noted that staples—like turnips—which had until then been produced largely by individual workers in allotments and garden plots, were now being farmed on a large scale.

Yes, turnips may be considered a peasant food, but the association with dirt and poverty seems unfair. Turnips, after all, helped make Britain wealthy. In the eighteenth century, Charles, Second Viscount, Townsend championed crop rotation, agricultural reform and the cultivation of Brassica rapa. It was the start of an agricultural revolution and earned him the nickname ‘Turnip’ Townsend.

Turnips will crowd out or smother weeds, are cold-tolerant and an all round easy-to-grow crop.

The swede, a.k.a. rutabaga, is a kind of turnip, possibly originating from a cross between the turnip and the cabbage, and a late arrival on the culinary scene. In 1916 – 1917 swedes helped save a substantial section of the German population from starvation.

In Forgotten Fruits, Christopher Stocks describes turnip varieties called Snowball and Orange Jelly.

I would not go so far as to say that winter turnips are useless. They have their place in soup and stocks …  But unless you are prepared to lavish attention and butter on them, I would suggest waiting until the spring and early summer.’ Jane Grigson was not a great fan of the turnip—and she actively disliked swedes. When it came to turnips, the French, she wrote, had the right idea. Their turnip dishes used young, spring-harvested vegetables. Whereas in England, ‘we stick too much to the agricultural view, regarding the turnips as a coarse, cow-sized vegetable, suitable for the over-wintering of herds, schoolchildren, prisoners and lodgers.

In Digging the Past Frances E Dolan introduces chapter 2 (Knowing Your Food: Turnips, Titus, and the Local) with a couple of instances of turnip-related violence. The accidental death of an infant in 1651 from a turnip tossed over a church wall, and a wife murdered by her husband who couldn’t stomach the prospect of turnips for dinner.

Dolan points out that some historians and food writers have dismissed the turnip’s story as one that is not worth telling. Unlike say, tomatoes, apples, or potatoes. A point of view echoed—or prefigured—by Jennifer A Jordan in Edible Memory: The Lure of Heirloom Tomatoes and Other Forgotten Vegetables. A heritage turnip sounds like an oxymoron. Does such a thing exist? Yes, it does. There’s a Japanese heirloom turnip known as hoekurai. And no doubt somewhere out there are more lost varieties waiting to be rediscovered.

Everyone knows about heirloom tomatoes and the history of apples. They’re the A-listers. Turnips don’t even make the B-list. They’re at, or close to, the bottom of the celebrity vegetable hierarchy.

There’s nothing glamorous about the turnip. It’s an unprepossessing vegetable. Unlike strawberries or tomatoes, it’s not freighted with nostalgia. Nor a reservoir of youthful memories—except perhaps in Scotland where mashed ‘neeps’ are a traditional side-dish. Unlike strawberries, apples and tomatoes, turnips usually need cooking, or some kind of pickling or preserving.

The Turnip Princess is a fairy tale collected by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth. It fuses the magical and the mundane and when I read it I see elements of a reverse Sleeping Beauty. A bear tells the hero (a prince, of course) that if he puts a rusty nail under a field turnip his reward will be a beautiful wife. The Gigantic Turnip is a classic, much retold Russian folktale in which a farmer grows a turnip so large he’s unable to uproot it by himself, and has to enlist the aid of family members and a procession of creatures. Together they succeed in pulling up the massive turnip.

Turnips were apparently thrown by Roman audiences at unpopular orators and during plays and poetry readings that did not meet with their approval. The ancient world’s equivalent of rotten tomatoes. On a more positive note, in some translations of her verse, the poet Sappho, writing in the early seventh century BCE, calls one of her paramours ‘Turnip’.

Turnips play well in tagines and soups. Roasted with cumin and paprika, or with garam masala. Shavings of young turnips add crunch and pepperiness to salads and stir-fries. I cook very finely diced swedes, serve them seasoned with nutmeg, white pepper and extra virgin olive oil, or use them as the basis for a vegetarian Cornish pasty. And I like to think that buying turnips from farmers’ markets or organic providores is helping support biodiversity.

Riff on a green tomato

Like a lot of us, I’m finding Sydney’s current lockdown more of challenge than the one last year. My mood goes up and down and writing has become a frustratingly slow process. As someone who works mostly from home I know that my professional life is far less disrupted than many people’s. And it’s not as if the projects I’m working on aren’t enjoyable, aren’t ideas to which I’m deeply committed …

Times like this, I remind myself that the counterpoint to ‘work from home’ and ‘stay at home’ orders is the outsourcing of risk—to supermarket staff, to those delivering our Uber Eats and online shopping orders, and to others in the food supply chain deemed ‘essential workers’.

To combat low spirits and what I hope is a temporary lack of application, I’ve been doing a lot of cooking. And I’ve also set myself a food-related task: to write 100 words a day  about any vaguely culinary experience, idea, or mash up thereof, that happens or pops into my head that day.

The piece below – Riff on a green tomato – was written on 29 July, when there were a bunch of cops patrolling the park and harbour foreshore.

How it got there
body half buried

in the mulch
whose it was

nobody knows
not the solo picnicker

who scoffed a sausage roll and left
a snow of flaky pastry

not the essential worker
who blew some leaves

cut up some fallen limbs
and scooted off

looks to me like
it entered the earth

at some point
in the last few hours –

an accident, perhaps a fall
from someone’s shopping bag

was it a deliberate act
abandoned for its unwelcome colour

or how about this for a plot
the green tomato is the offspring

of a plant seeded
from the discarded

scraps of someone’s last summer barbeque.
Case closed.

Epic tomatoes

Sydney is battling Covid-19’s super contagious delta strain. We’re in deep lockdown and advised to do all our shopping online. I don’t have a car, so I’ve used online shopping for years. But only for certain things—bags of kitty litter, laundry powder, rice, tinned tuna, etc—bulky or heavy goods I can’t carry home, and non-perishables. I like to pick out my own fresh fruit and vegetables. And I always check ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ dates on milk, tofu, yoghurt and other fridge items.

The current restrictions have changed that; I’ve added fruit, vegetables, dairy and other chilled foods to my online orders. With mixed results. Sometimes the delivered produce are fine, half a butternut pumpkin, almost three weeks in which to use a tub of ricotta; but sometimes the ‘use by dates’ are ridiculously short for a household of two adults. I’ve also received squishy sweet potatoes, badly bruised apples—and green tomatoes. To be clear, I hadn’t ordered green tomatoes, they just came that way.

Johann Wilhelm Weinmann, Phytanthoza iconographia,1737 – 1745

Tomatoes aren’t always red or round. They come in many shapes and in every colour from daffodil yellow to near black. Some varieties, like the well known Green Zebra, stay green even when fully ripe.

By coincidence, not long after my unripe tomatoes were delivered, I came across green tomatoes during a walk along the harbour foreshore. (Lockdown restrictions allow us to leave home for exercise.) Three irregular green tomatoes lying on the mulch in one of the park’s raised borders. I concoct a narrative to explain their presence. I imagine them semi wild, tomatoes of character, the offspring of a plant seeded from the discarded scraps of someone’s barbeque or picnic.

What can I do with green tomatoes? (I left the three in the park to become compost. I’m talking now about the ones the supermarket sent me.) Do I put them in the fruit bowl next to a banana and see if that will coax them to redness? Or do I use them as they are?

The first recipe that springs to mind is invariably green tomato chutney. Hmm. A couple of maybe nots. One. Years ago when we were living in the Blue Mountains, my partner burnt the bottom of my big Le Creuset pot trying to make green tomato chutney. The memory of that disaster—the smell, the scraping, the forever-after scratched surface—lingers. Two. Green tomato chutney can be a hit or miss affair; it can turn out tasty, but it can also turn out not very nice. And realistically, how much homemade chutney will we eat in a year?

Green tomatoes need longer cooking than their red counterparts. A little sugar, a little spice. Could I use them in a tagine? With leeks, chickpeas, a handful of raisins. Or how about a South Indian green tomato dahl …

When is a plum a greengage?

I’ve just ordered a book I’ve long lusted after: The Plums of England by Harold V Taylor, published in 1949.

I’ve bought my copy online, from the wonderful Hard to Find Books NZ, the largest secondhand and antiquarian book dealers in New Zealand and the largest online secondhand bookstore in Australasia.

As they say on their website, as well as offering an online service, they are also a real, bricks-and-mortar bookshop—two in fact, one in Auckland and one in Dunedin. A few years ago I spent a happy late August afternoon browsing in the Dunedin store on Dowling Street. I can’t remember exactly what I bought there, but I know I came away with several purchases. Books I’d been looking for—and books I didn’t know I ‘needed’ until I plucked them from the shelves.

By Alois Lunzer, Brown Brothers Continental Nurseries Catalogue, 1909

There’s a brilliant passage—an interior monologue—in A S Byatt’s 1985 novel Still Life about how to describe the colour and bloom of plums:

Do we have enough words, synonyms, near synonyms for purple? What is the greyish, or maybe white, or whitish, or silvery, or dusty mist or haze or smokiness over the purple shine? How do you describe the dark cleft from stalk pit to oval end, its inky shadow?

It’s the end of June, winter in Australia; fresh plums are out of season, and won’t be back in supermarkets and for sale at farmers’ markets until summer. Black plums, red plums, mirabelles, cherry plums, plums with yellow flesh, maybe even greengages—a group of cultivars popular in Britain and other parts of Europe.

What makes a plum a greengage? It’s not the colour. As well as the usual yellowish-green fruit, there are purple greengages and greengages the colour of amber. The greengage (Prunus domestica subsp. italica) was originally a sixteenth century French varietal named Reine Claude after the wife of King François I. A couple of centuries later an English baronet by the name of Gage, imported them into England. 

Louis Glowinski (The Complete Book of Fruit Growing in Australia) writes that gages ‘are the elite of the plum world’. ‘Ripeness is all,’ says Edgar in King Lear. And a ripe greenage is a sublime thing—sweet and fragrant with a slightly tart subtext. They’re also delicious cooked or candied. Jams, cakes, crumbles, or simply stewed and served with Greek yoghurt or labneh. And plums of all varieties play well with ground almonds and frangipane.

I like cooking with plums—every kind from small, midnight-dark damsons to big red-skinned Victorias—but I also like their common names and the mico-stories behind those names. Here are a few of my favourites from The Plums of England:

Rivers’ Early Prolific

Kirke’s Blue

Warwickshire Drooper

Laxton’s Goldfinch

Denniston’s Superb


Late Transparent

Dittisham Ploughman


Coe’s Crimson Drop

Angelina Burdett

Purple Pershore

Passion fruit

I’ve been writing about a (fictional) character who has a tattoo of a passion fruit vine that winds around her left arm from wrist to shoulder. So no surprise, I’ve had passion fruit on my mind the last couple of weeks.

Passion fruit is the best known of the fruits of the various species of the genus Passiflora, a tropical/subtropical perennial that produces a purple-brown or yellow fruit and striking flowers with deep violet-blue centres.

Introduced to Queensland some time in the late nineteenth century, this South American native, is now both a year-round commercial crop in Australia and a popular garden plant. You’ll find passion fruit vines climbing up trellises and trained over pergolas in many a suburban backyard.

For anyone interested, there’s plenty of botanical and horticultural information about Passiflora species available online.

Passion fruit was given its name by missionaries in Brazil around the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were trying to convert the indigenous inhabitants to Christianity and used the distinctive flowers to teach the story of the crucifixion of Jesus. (There’s a lot about that too on the internet.) So the plant’s early association was with religious rather than romantic passion. The romance came later.

In her Fruit Book, Jane Grigson is scandalised by the exorbitant prices charged for passion fruit in Britain and France. And the only specimens I saw when I lived in England were small with old-man wrinkled skins. Not so here in Australia, where yesterday for just over $5 I bought three large, deliciously fresh examples of this fruit I think of as a quintessential Australian ingredient.  

It is the most aromatic of fruits; cut open a passion fruit and its sweet, slightly tart fragrance fills the kitchen. It speaks of laughter and laid-back lunches. It speaks of poetry and promise and late afternoons when the sun fights its ever-losing battle with the rotation of the earth and gives way to night.

I most often eat passion fruit spooned over unsweetened Greek yoghurt mixed with a teaspoon of lemon curd. I’ve also enjoyed it strewn over ice cream, pavlova and cheesecake, but my favourite use is probably in a passion fruit sponge of the kind you find in country towns and at CWA stalls. Last week I went looking for for a slice of this classic. Without success. Inner Sydney cafés and bakeries have shelves of cakes and baked goods on offer, but passion fruit sponge is off the menu. Perhaps, like many foods deemed old-fashioned, it will have a comeback at some point? Here’s hoping.

Two books I’m looking forward to reading

April has been crazy busy. Not much time to write—or cook for that matter—but after this weekend, I’m giving myself time to read. Two books I ordered arrived a few days ago and I’m really looking forward to sitting down with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and getting into them.

I’ve already dipped into The Biscuit: the History of a Very British Indulgence by Lizzie Collingham. A fascinating culinary and social history, although her claim that the iconic Australian lamington is a South Australian invention is open to debate. This recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald gives Queensland as the cake’s place of origin, while a 2014 piece in The Guardian claims—Shock! Horror!—New Zealand.

My second book is the wonderfully titled The Book of Difficult Fruit by Kate Lebo. Its subheading is: Arguments for the Tart, Tender, and Unruly. That’s my kind of book.

Wine & cheese in the Amazon

Editing Lemon Pieces (Quelques Morceaux en Form de Citron), originally published in 1998, for inclusion in Dizzy Limits (Brow Books, 2020) got me thinking about past works. That’s how I came upon a draft of Wine & Cheese in the Amazon, which I wrote about twelve years ago. It’s not uncommon with unfinished projects that bits of them get recycled into other works, in this case into my much produced one-woman play Good With Maps. Anyway, here’s that essay—slightly tidied up.

France was at the top, then Italy, followed by Germany and Spain. Australia was at the bottom in a generic ‘New World’ category, with Chile off the list altogether because this was the 1980s and Pinochet was in power. Wine in England was still something of an exotic tipple associated with special occasions, continental holidays and bohemian proclivities. Although by the time I was at university, this was changing, and I could navigate the cheap shelves of the off-licence with confidence: Black Tower, Blue Nun, Bull’s Blood from Hungary, and Mateus Rosé from Portugal, which came in distinctive, bulb-shaped bottles to be recycled into lamp-stands and candle-holders.

Over a couple of decades later and 1,600 kilometres up the Amazon, I’m drinking Mateus Rosé again. And I’m not the only one: the ubiquitous pink is on the up again, benefiting from a (relatively) recent surge in popularity of rosé wines.

‘Fondue & Wine Night’ at this particular restaurant in Manaus is a step back in time to that pre-cholesterol era when cheese was healthy and wine was sweet. It’s my last night in Manaus before I fly back to Rio de Janeiro, and I’ve come here because—well, a place advertising a ‘Fondue & Wine Night’ must have wine on offer. And with all that cheese to keep cool, I figure they’ll have that other essential: air conditioning.

Manaus copy

Three degrees south of the Equator, Manaus is an oddity: a city of almost two million people in the heart of the Amazon. On the map it’s six boldface letters amid a swathe of green; on the ground, the humidity is crushing.

 ‘Because of the evaporation, Manaus is always evaporating,’ the taxi driver explained as he ferried me from the airport to my hotel.

Travel guides are not kind to Manaus, describing it as dirty and overcrowded, an oily blot on our rainforest fantasies. But I like the buzz and frontier ambience of this river port. I like the cast iron Municipal Market where biodiversity comes alive with tentacles and spiky skins. The waterfront where porters run cases of guaraná and transformers to waiting barges. And the old district of Educandos, named after the teachers who were some of the city’s first migrants. Where one morning, I watched a businesswoman in high heels climb to her bus stop across a system of planks and makeshift bridges. And wondered why, despite housekeeping services and modern plumbing, I was sweaty and crumpled, while people living in the most basic of circumstances were immaculately turned out?

With this in mind, I’ve dressed up for the ‘Fondue & Wine Night’, applied lipstick, and taken a cab to the up-market Vieralves neighbourhood. But already my shirt looks as if I’ve slept in it. 

From a few doors down, a band in full stampede. 2/4 syncopation loud enough to stagger the pulse of the neon sign across the street. Or maybe the power is about to short out, the way it did my second day here?

Around 4:00 pm branched lightening sprang from a black curve of the forest. Thick clouds, purple, grey and silver-edged, began to drop spots the size of tennis balls onto the path, and within seconds rain was pouring in sheets so opaque it was impossible to see the tree a couple of metres away—let alone the Amazon beyond. Straight down, taps turned on full capacity, the monsoon that swept in about the same time every day was especially intense that afternoon—my second in Manaus. The lamp in my room sparked, the fan stopped; there was nothing for it but to head for the lobby and a glass of chilled white wine.

That’s when I discovered the hotel bar didn’t serve wine. Only beer and spirits and a raft of soft drinks. The barman however, tried to oblige, rummaging under the counter until he found—

‘Red?’ he asked, holding up the remains of an unidentified bottle.

‘Uh—no. Thanks.’ I mean, God knows how long it’s been sitting there!

Later, in the café, I tried again.

‘Sorry, no wine. Would you like a Coke instead?’

I could, I discovered, order a bottle of wine on room service. There’s Local or Imported. Imported from where? France, Chile … Uzbekistan? I called to ask.

‘From overseas, Madam.’

I opted for the local white.

Ten minutes later, a waiter arrived with a tray and two glasses. Only to hesitate, confusion crinkling his brow, reluctant to open the bottle for a single senhora.

Is this the lot of the solo traveller? Or is it a wine and gender thing? ‘[T]he assumption on the part of wine waiters that women are too frail to consume or too stingy to pay for a whole bottle,’ as Elizabeth David put it. Whatever the case, I ended up pouring most of that room service Chardonnay down the sink. Not because it was unpleasant, but because I realised with the first sip, that what I really wanted, was to enjoy the drink of my choice in a public space. 

Like its cuisine, the décor at the fondue restaurant is pure 1970s. In fact much of Manaus’s appeal is retro—not reconstituted heritage, but the real 70’s deal. Take concrete. Like their colleagues elsewhere, the architects of modern Manaus embraced concrete with a vengeance, and everywhere you go, there it is: smooth concrete, bumpy concrete, windowless concrete, textured, moulded, weed-sprouting concrete. Is it an aesthetic choice? Or an attempt to combat the weather, the decay that creeps up every façade and pillar, the moisture that softens everything?

Manaus is a boom and slump sort of place, and if the concrete jungle is the design legacy of the boom that began in 1966 when the government declared the city a free-trade zone, then the pink and white opera house is the most visible reminder of that earlier boom, what translator Leandro calls ‘the rubber time’.

Manaus 6

‘Everyone,’ he announced the first time we met, ‘has a certain size to their life, and you can refuse to fill it or use it all.’ A philosophically-inclined man with indigenous bone-structure and expressive hands, Leandro talked with affection of Eduardo Gonçalves Ribeiro. State governor during the final decades of the nineteenth century, his flamboyant determination to bring ‘light into the dark forest’ was a source of inspiration for Werner Herzog’s 1982 film Fitzcarraldo. Ribeiro’s tenure coincided with the rubber boom. A period of monopoly when entrepreneurs and bosses lived in outlandish luxury. When Camembert and raspberry jam arrived on steamships from North America; when horses were given champagne to quench their thirst; linen sent to Paris or London to be washed, and ladies donned gloves and fur coats to hear Verdi’s latest at the newly-opened Teatro Amazonas. Although, as I sat in that theatre, in my red velvet seat, listening to a string quartet rehearse, I wondered about the truth of these stories, which seem to become more baroque with each retelling.

We were outside the theatre, taking photographs, when a boy appeared at the top of the steps. He was about ten or eleven-years-old, barefoot, pushing a battered wheelbarrow full of pineapples. Another vendor attempted to shoo him away—trade in tourist hot spots is strictly controlled. The pair of them yelled insults at each other, until the vendor marched up to the barrow and kicked it over. Wheelbarrow and pineapples tumbled down the steps, but Eisenstein wasn’t there to record for posterity that image of falling fruit. Or the dignity of the boy as he picked up his livelihood.

‘He’s probably left the interior for the future,’ explained Patrícia, an architect from São Paulo, here as part of a scheme to provide in-town housing for the region’s native peoples. Housing that will acknowledge their traditions whilst accepting the fact that they are now urban dwellers.

Buy a Nokia phone in Recife or a Samsung TV in Porto Alegre, and chances are it was put together in Manaus. Drawn by the promise of tax relief, multinationals moved into the Distrito Industrial, and at night you can see their corporate logos lording it over the city. The aristocrats of this second boom are executives from Europe and South Korea, but unlike their predecessors, the majority of them will never actually set foot in Manaus. As for the workers, many of them hail from remote communities off the radar for all but the most intrepid anthropologist.

By now I’d given up looking for wine by the glass or half-carafe in favour of a bottle of anything I could imbibe in a public venue, rather than alone in my room. A quest that took me to the poolside buffet of a nearby hotel.

‘May I see the wine list?’

The waiter handed me the standard menu: cocktails, spirits, beer and non-alcoholic options. I repeated my request, this time in Portuguese. He sighed and made for the waiters’ station. Surely I’m not the only wine-drinker in Manaus?

The list when it arrived, was short and predominantly Argentinean. ‘I’d like the Brazilian Riesling, please.’

‘Blanco ou tinto?’

I don’t think Rieslings come in red, do they?

A bottle of Marcus James was brought in an ice bucket to my table by another waiter, a stocky, older man, his face overgrown with fatigue. It turned out to be a rather bland, thin-bodied drop—No, let’s be generous and call it ‘refreshing’. Besides, after all that hunting, I was determined to enjoy it.

Wine grapes were introduced into Brazil by the Portuguese as far back as 1532, but encountered various environmental problems and failed to flourish. As did the Spanish vines planted by Jesuit missionaries along the Uruguay River a hundred-and-thirty years later. It was not until the 1880s that Brazilian viticulture got going in the southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sol, thanks to the know-how and persistence of Italian immigrants.

Wine grapes are now also grown in north-eastern Brazil, and the upper São Francisco valley is probably the most important tropical vineyard in the world. This would certainly surprise the Victorian explorer Richard Burton, who visited the area in 1867 and wrote: ‘Grape growing will hardly be possible in this climate, where the hot season is also that of the rains.’ But a hundred-and-fifty years after Burton, this scrubland of stunted trees and prolonged droughts is producing millions of litres of wine. The vines depend on irrigation for survival, and on restricted fecundity for quality control. Doubts remain however, about the wisdom of the enterprise; the suitability of grapes from tropical climates to produce anything more than vinho de mesa or vinegar. What isn’t disputed, is that each hectare of cultivation provides much-needed employment in this desperately poor part of Brazil.

In contrast to the wine drought, I’ve never in my life been offered so much cheese. Or to be strictly accurate, so much gorgonzola. It’s there for breakfast, there for lunch on pizzas and pasta; it’s dug into mashed potato, stuffed into fish, even disguised as soup. Tourist agencies could use it on billboards to promote the town: Want to gorge on gorgonzola? Come to Manaus!

In a satirical essay, G K Chesterton observed that poets have been curiously silent on the subject of cheese. Not so the contributors to Wikipedia, where cheese is apparently one of the online encyclopaedia’s most reworked topics—along with Fidel Castro, deconstructivism and Israel. I recognise the controversial nature of the other entries, but why does cheese inspire such passion? Myself, I regard cheese as politically neutral, although there is that pre-gourmet association with parsimony and spinsterhood, captured so succinctly by Barbara Pym: ‘I went upstairs to my flat to eat a melancholy lunch. A dried-up scrap of cheese, a few lettuce leaves … A woman’s meal, I thought, with no suggestion of brandy afterwards.’

Today, my last in Manaus, I hired a driver and went to the Adolpho Ducke Reserve and Botanic Gardens on the eastern outskirts of town.

‘Not long ago you saw only the forest from out here,’ said Amir, as he parked the car. ‘Now look! Skyscrapers and buildings.’

I couldn’t tell if Amir regretted this change or welcomed it, but not much more than twenty kilometres from the traffic snarls and Internet cafés of Centro, the road ran out. Literally. You’re in the middle of nowhere with forest in every direction. Amir turned off the engine, and a heavy press of silence descended. Was it only a few minutes ago that we passed gardens cut out of the bush? A makeshift church? Huts selling cachaça and cans of Coca-Cola, clothes drying on wire fences?


When the military took over in 1964, national security became a government priority, and the Transamazônica Highway was designed to link the Atlantic coast with the Peruvian border. A grandiose project in the Fitzcarraldo mould, the motorway remains unfinished. Of the 2,500 kilometres so far constructed, much of it is unpaved, making it not only impassable in the rainy season, but also prone to reinvasion by the forest.

Except for the road to Boa Vista, 450 kilometres to the north, Manaus has no sealed roads linking it to any other city.

‘Do you ever feel isolated?’ I asked Amir.

He was puzzled by the question.

I explained that I once spent several months in Perth on the edge of Western Australia. Often referred to as the most geographically isolated city in the world, I was aware of its remoteness, the desert breath of the Nullarbor on the back of my neck, the whole time I was there.

Amir shook his head. Manaus is different. ‘Because of the river.’

As we were leaving the Reserve, I spotted a kid in a Star Trek T-shirt kicking a football back and forth across a dirt track pockmarked with puddles. This was indeed the final frontier, and at least by road, there was nowhere else to go—boldly or otherwise.

‘May I have the bill, please?’

The head waiter darts over. Is everything is all right?

The food was fine, the service prompt, the wine—well, there’s only so much ‘blush’ or rosé a girl can take, despite new packaging and ad campaigns aimed at encouraging us to ‘Drink Pink’. When I was a student we drank Mateus Rosé because it was cheap. Perhaps for today’s twenty-somethings, it is their way of rebelling against their parents’ taste for pinot noir and chablis?  

Outside the restaurant, the street crackles with anticipation, diesel fumes and barbecuing fish; crowds throng open-air bars pumping out competing rhythms, and impeccably dressed couples saunter along, seemingly impervious to the evening drizzle. I feel scruffy and unironed again, but I am starting to understand something about those rubber barons and their laundry.

When I get back to the hotel, I grab a big, golf umbrella and sit for a while on the wall behind the car park. The Amazon on that last rainy night offers no horizon, rolling unbroken into a wet, inky infinity. Sky and river in unison. Miles out, I can see the silhouettes of tiny boats as they bob among the churning water, like dragons on a medieval map.

‘Quando ele volta?’

Suddenly, behind me, a loud voice. A businessman paces up and down, shouting into his mobile. A snake slithers between two vehicles and into the garden. The man’s foot misses it by inches, but he’s too engrossed in his phone conversation to notice. Or too blasé. To be familiar with a place is, after all, to be blind to the strangeness it presents to outsiders.

A mere trifle

Trifle with my heart
booze-soaked cake, fruit and custard
sweet labour of love.

I started this Year of the Ox writing haiku. I actually prefer another Japanese poetic form, tanka, which has five lines and thirty-one syllables to haiku’s three and seventeen—but that’s a post for a different blogsite. Anyway, my haiku-writing took a culinary turn and up popped trifle.

About the trifle
classic, chocolate, break the rules
no one-size-fits-all.

January moved into February and I loved into experimenting with trifles. Inspired by a wonderful book in the English Kitchen series: Trifle by Helen Saberi & Alan Davidson. Their book contains scores of trifle recipes spanning more than five-hundred years, and is a real celebration of this versatile dish whose variations seem ‘as infinite as stars inthe sky’.

Tasmanian trifle, temperance trifle. Inexpensive, exotic, summer and strawberry trifles. A trifle old-fashioned, a trifle on the familiar side, a trifle too much. Although its name suggests something trivial, something of no consequence and little value, there’s a school of thought that says trifle is one of Britain’s greatest contributions to the global dessert trolly. A trifle can be a sophisticated indulgence; it can be a showy concoction whose appearance belies the simpleness of its making. That’s the beauty of trifle: it’s incredibly easy to make, mostly assemblage, in fact.

When it comes to trifle, jelly is controversial. Does it belong? Yes, no, maybe occasionally. I’m in the ‘Just Say No’ to jelly camp, but if other cooks wish to include it, that’s their choice. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to trifle. You make it to suit your own taste. Because my partner follows a low cholesterol diet I hold the whipped cream, and I’ve come to prefer my classic, quick and easy trifle (swiss roll, sherry, mixed berries, vanilla custard) minus cream. When it comes to my chocolate trifle though, I favour a splash or two of pouring cream.

I make my chocolate trifle with slices of shop-bought chocolate cake soaked in amaretto. Then a layer of cherries, stones removed, and chopped pears. You could use good quality canned or bottled pears, but this time I’ve poached fresh pears to the desired softness. Top that with dark, velvety chocolate custard. Put it in the fridge to set and scatter with flaked almonds before serving. It tastes a bit like a gooey black forest gateau with a hint of tiramisu.

Yes, the trifle has travelled. Helen Saberi & Alan Davidson’s book contains recipes not only from Britain, but from places further afield: Trinidad, North America, Scandinavia, Australia, and India, where it was a feature of the Anglo-Indian menu. Trifle prints a recipe from the wonderfully titled Indian Domestic Economy and Receipt Book …  comprising numerous directions for plain wholesome cookery, both Oriental and English, with much miscellaneous matter, answering all general purposes of reference connected with household affairs likely to be immediately required by families, messes, and private individuals, residing at the presidencies or out-stations. The author was one Dr R Riddell and as far as I can tell it was first published circa 1853.

I began this post on a literary note, so I shall end on one. This is from E M Forster’s 1924 novel A Passage to India. Miss Adela Quested travels to the subcontinent expecting to become engaged to a British magistrate in the city of Chandrapore. During the meal described below, she begins to have second thoughts …

… to dinner came Miss Derek and the McBrydes, and the menu was: Julienne soup full of bullety bottled peas, pseudo-cottage bread, fish full of branching bones, pretending to be plaice, more bottled peas with the cutlets, trifle, sardines on toast: the menu of Anglo-India. A dish might be added or subtracted as one rose or fell in the official scale … but the tradition remained; the food of exiles, cooked by servants.

The suet inheritance

The surprise
in my mother’s pantry
    six boxes of Atora suet

and a drawerful
of cutlery
    bent out of shape.

None of it
will ever be used again
    by its owner.

There’s a violence to this
tidying away of a woman
    not yet cremated.

Little white maggots
in their primary coloured
    cardboard box

suet is hard fat
that surrounds cow kidneys.
    If you can stomach the idea

suet makes excellent pastry,
works a treat
    in jam roly-poly,

steamed puddings and pies—
British stodge
    at its best.

My mother was old school
believed all sickness
    could be cured

with water
and will power.
    Until it couldn’t.

I remember this kitchen
The Archers on the radio;
    licking out bowls and spoons.

My mother’s cookbooks
loose spines and recipes that crowd
    untasted between the pages.

The fit of old aprons
the shape of a family
    swallowed into other lives.

Memory is a fine ingredient in any dish
and that afternoon
    I feasted on it.

Pineapple upside-down cake—the backstory

Baking isn’t something I do regularly and, as I’ve mentioned before, my baking playlist is a short one, so I don’t know why I was suddenly overtaken by a desire for pineapple upside-down cake. Was it mentioned by a character in a novel I was reading? Did it pop into my head when I bought a whole pineapple last week? Or was it prompted by an ad for tinned pineapple spotted during the course of archival research?

The first time I made a pineapple upside-down cake was forever ago. I recall a student dinner party circa 1980. A bit past the cake’s heyday, but in grey, overcast England it still oozed tropical sophistication—laughable as that now seems.

This time though, I not only wanted to make pineapple upside-down cake, I wanted to know its origin story. There were questions and I wanted answers.

I had a hunch it all began in America. I followed that hunch and my investigation took me into the kitchens, newspapers and not-so-mean streets of suburbia. From there I followed leads in archives and databases. It soon became apparent that the upside-down cake had form, a history that predated its US appearance. From as far back as the Middle Ages, Europeans made cakes by pouring a basic batter over a layer of fruit and sugar, cooking the whole thing over a fire, then flipping it to serve. The tarte Tatin, an upside-down apple tart created by two sisters in the 1880s, is probably the best-known example of France’s many gâteaux renversés.

The term ‘upside-down cake’ appeared sometime in the early 1920s in regional America and featured plums and pome fruits rather than pineapple. Who was the first person to swap those for pineapple? The trail goes cold. But worth noting that although tinned pineapple was available in post World War I America, it was still a relatively exotic item.

In 1925 the Hawaiian Pineapple Company sponsored a contest calling for (canned) pineapple recipes. They received a flood of 60,000 submissions of which an alleged 2,500 were for pineapple upside-down cake. No surprise then that the winning entry was—yes, a pineapple upside-down cake! The company built a major advertising campaign around the winning recipe and by the mid-1930s pineapple upside-down cake was probably the most popular home-baked cake in America. It was easy. It was comfort food, it worked as a fundraiser or school fete offering. It was a potluck staple and a dinner party dessert.

Pineapple with Cockroaches by Maria Sibylla Merian, circa 1703

Cultivated pineapple (Ananas comosus) belongs to the family Bromeliaceae and it’s native to the Orinoco basin in South America. I’m imagining sun-filled days of heat, stagnant air and violent storms. Dragonflies cruising up and downriver. A litter of bougainvillea.

The first European to encounter a pineapple was Christopher Columbus in 1493. Apparently only a single pineapple made the return trip to Spain intact. The others rotted. Whether that story is true or apocryphal, who knows, but it is true that by the eighteenth-century pineapple pits were all the fashion among the well-to-do of Europe. Theatrical centrepieces for banquets and symbols of the hosts’ wealth and social standing.

Who first managed to grow a pineapple in a northern climate remains an open case. But the most likely contender is Dutch horticulturalist and woman-of-many-talents, Agneta Block in about 1685.

Pineapples were first introduced to Queensland by Lutheran missionaries who imported plants from India in 1838. Or maybe not. There’s evidence that the first Ananas comosus plants arrived in 1824 and five years later the Colonial Botanist counted thirty-four flourishing in Brisbane’s government garden.

Initially farmers serviced the market demand for fresh fruit, but as production blossomed, attention turned to processing. A retired sailor first canned pineapples in Malaysia in 1888 with exports from Singapore soon following. In Hawaii a large-scale canning industry developed thanks to the invention of a machine that could peel, core and slice pineapples automatically, and at speed.

Golden Circle began as a growers’ cooperative. The pineapple cannery commenced production in 1947. That same year, to celebrate the marriage of the future Queen Elizabeth, the Queensland State Government shipped five-hundred cases of tinned pineapple to London.The company’s advertising took a practical, recipe-based approach. Housewives were encouraged to keep their menfolk happy with canned pineapple—Glazed Pineapple & Sausages; Pineapple Atolls; Macaroni Cheese Tropical; Frozen Pineapple Crunch, and many more culinary gems. In the 1950s and 60s the Australian Women’s Weekly ran the brand’s colourful ads in just about every issue. Like this one from October 1964 which features the alarmingly-named ‘Busy Housewife Salad’.

Pineapples were the heart of Golden Circle, and the fruit remains important in Queensland. On the state’s Sunshine Coast you can visit The Big Pineapple, opened in 1971 and now a heritage-listed tourist attraction. More obliquely, I retrieved a lengthy article from the Queensland Agricultural Journal of August 1953. Primarily information about farming pineapples, it’s the specialist vocabulary that captures my attention. I’m talking tops, slips, suckers and butts, not to mention references to ‘undesirable types’ and ‘off-types [that] should be rogued from the plantation.’ Read that language and I can’t help but see animated pineapples creating havoc as cartoon characters do.

In the England of my childhood, pineapple came ringed or ready chunked—I’m exaggerating, but you get the picture. Now if you trawl the internet for pineapple upside-down cake recipes, many call for fresh pineapple. When I make my cake however, I opt for tinned pineapple and glacé cherries not fresh ones. Because ironically, they seem the more authentic choice. And anyway, Nigella says it’s OK to make this cake with canned fruit and who am I to argue with Nigella? The only alterations to the basic recipe that I consider are a teaspoon of cinnamon and nutmeg (as per a 1953 recipe from Pacific Islands Monthly) or adding ground ginger to the batter and dark rum to the caramel sauce as did a long-ago housemate’s Trinidadian mother.

I want the following word: splendour, splendour is fruit in all its succulence, fruit without sadness. I want vast distances.’ Whenever I read that quote from Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, I always think of pineapple: fruit without sadness.