’tis the season for … fruitcakes

Another strange and constrained year draws to a close. Another slice of fruitcake. And another dive into the history of dried fruits in Australia. In connection with a project I’ll be doing in the latter part of 2022, I did some research into the relationship between migration and the dried fruit industry.

A 1922 newspaper explained that the South Australian Premier, Henry Barwell, was brokering a deal—or perhaps more accurately, a swap—with the British government for an ‘immigration settlement along the Murray Valley as a substantial quid pro quo for an Imperial preference for Australian fruits’. You buy our dried fruit, we’ll take your immigrants. It’s tempting to point out that a century later, Australian politicians’ international diplomacy skills have not greatly improved.

Stollen, Christmas cake, Dundee cake, sultana cake, golden fruitcake, simnel cake, Caribbean black cake … I’ve yet to meet a fruitcake I don’t like. I totally don’t understand the American antipathy to fruitcake—but then I don’t share their fondness for the sugary blandness that is red velvet cake.

Recipes for Christmas cakes get passed around in families and communities. Get modified over the years to fit the tastes and lifestyles of successive generations. We have my partner’s grandmother’s recipe, copied out in spidery handwriting on blue paper, blurred by buttery fingerprints and with a pencil X beside ‘figs’. (Neither of us much like figs so we replace them with dates.) A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald asked if baking your own Christmas cakes (and Christmas puddings) was a dying art. Are we over the Covid-fuelled home-bakathon?

This year I composed my own adaptation for our Christmas dessert: fruitcake ice cream. I soaked sultanas, raisins and dried citrus peel in hot tea for a few hours to soften and plump up. Then I drained them, added glacé cherries to the bowl and soaked the whole lot overnight in brandy. The following day I partially melted a tub of good quality vanilla ice cream, mixed in the dried fruits and put it back in the freezer.

Although I didn’t make a traditional cake, our friend Iqbal did, and he gave us a present of his dark, rich, delicious Christmas fruitcake, along with a Sri Lankan love cake.

Back to the history of dried fruit cultivation.

The Australian Dried Fruits Association (now Dried Fruits Australia) was formed in 1907 from the amalgamation of the Mildura Raisin Trust and the Renmark Raisin Trust. The aim of the organisation was to protect the interests of growers, regulate prices and promote their produce.

This excerpt comes from a Victorian newspaper in 1932.

‘In the Palais Theatre last Friday afternoon over 300 people were treated to a most instructive and enjoyable two hours’ entertainment … Moving pictures were screened depicting the work that goes on in the irrigation areas where dried fruits are grown, processed and packed … Comedies and other pictures of educational interest were shown and everyone was given a Sunshine Cookery Book.

The article continues: ‘The objective is to stimulate interest in, and increase sales of, Australian sultanas, currants, lexias, apricots, peaches, pears and nectarines … Besides the necessity of supporting a great national industry on the grounds of patriotism and sound common sense there is one very convincing reason why every housewife in Australia should make it their duty to embody dried fruits in some shape or form in the daily diet of the home. It is a question of health.’

The early dried fruit industry in Australia drew on the expertise of Greek migrants. In 1948 The Age announced that ‘Migrants from displaced persons camps in Europe will help to save the dried fruit crops in Victoria and South Australia. Mr Calwell, Immigration Minister, said today that 400 men travelling in the General Stewart, due to reach Australia next month, would be taken immediately to the Victorian and South Australian irrigation areas on the River Murray … To supplement this force, 200 Balts [sic] now at Bonegilla camp would be sent to Mildura.’

Where do most of the fruits in fruitcake originate? The Arab world. Where did the art of mixing dried fruit into cake batter begin? In Europe, starting in ancient Rome. Proof—if you need it—that fruitcakes are life-affirming and cosmopolitan.


This sugar business

After the lull and languishing of lockdown, November has been a busy month. I have an audio work in production (Mrs C Private Detective), a theatre show opening early 2022 (The End of Winter) and I’ve started research / creative development on a new piece (Flying Saucers Over Fairfield.) So this month’s post is a short one.

Sugar gets a heap of bad press, but I have a soft spot it it—well, for its history. Perhaps because it was an important crop in Australia. Perhaps because I live in an apartment on the (redeveloped) site of the old Pyrmont CSR refinery …

I picked up The Story of Sugar, published in 1932 by the Queensland Bureau of Economics and Statistics, in a Brisbane charity shop. The booklet starts with a Summary:

‘The Australian sugar problem is part of the world’s sugar problem and has much the same origin. It is a problem of over-production and of sales on the world’s market at much less than the sugar costs to produce.’

Now of course, if you talk about the ‘sugar problem’ you’re likely to be talking about consumption rather than production, about diet and public health, about sugar as the villain in the pantry.

I bought The Story of Sugar for the bits and pieces of historical information it contains. And when I flick through the booklet’s yellowed pages, I gloss over the tables and economic data, and picture instead the cane fields of north Queensland ablaze.

Fire runs through the history of sugar. ‘By a fire at Pyrmont this morning the refined sugar store of the Colonial Sugar Refining Company was destroyed.’ That’s where I live, and that report is from an October 1918 Sydney newspaper. ‘The fire was remarkable for the velocity with which it spread and for the magnificently picturesque spectacle it provided. It was the biggest fire that Sydney has had for years.’ The account continues:

‘Immense geysers of flame shot into the air, and then after the fashion of a rocket, broke into myriads of sparks and spray. There was not a puff of wind. The flames leapt directly upward, illuminating the sky for miles, and casting brilliant reflections into the water. The walls burst with explosions which were heard a long distance off. From the effect of the breaking geysers, the moon was coloured a beautiful dark blue, and the stars above and around it were paled and surrounded with reddish and blue tints. The atmosphere was permeated with the odour of burnt sugar.’

I suspect I’ll be returning to this sugar business at some point, but that’s it for now.

Go pine nuts

There they were in Queer Plants, an 1894 article in a weekly newspaper from regional Victoria.

The article continues: ‘ … in California the … Indians collect pine nuts, which are the seeds of certain species of pine, sometimes called “pinions,” by kindling fires against the trees, thus causing the nuts to fall out of the cones’.

Pine nuts aren’t nuts, botanically speaking. They’re the edible seeds of those pine species (genus Pinus) whose seeds are large enough to be worth harvesting. European pine nuts come mostly from the stone pine (Pinus pinea), which has a super-long history of cultivation, and an even longer one of gathering from the wild. Russia, Korea, China and—once upon a time, Afghanistan—are major producers of pine nuts. I checked out the pine nuts for sale in my local supermarket, and they’re all, including those labelled ‘organic’, imported from China.

Many cuisines—European, Asian, Middle Eastern—make use of pine nuts. They enliven green salads; you can use them instead of almonds in a Spanish romesco sauce; they add a bit of crunch to pilaf and other rice dishes. And you can use them to stuff mushrooms, tomatoes, marrows—or capsicums, which is what I’m doing today.

There’s more to the pine nut than the classic pesto alla Genovese. But in a sobering 2015 article in the New York Times, Jonathan C  Slaght suggests the pine nut industry may be contributing to the crash of an ecosystem in the Russian far east. Commercial over-harvesting by Homo sapiens along with myriad disruptions caused by climate change is depriving other species of their vital food source.

Pine nuts are rich in oil and the smell of them toasting is irresistible. I always add an extra handful to the pan—and enjoy snacking on them as I put the recipe together. Pine kernels have a short shelf life—that’s my justification for this indulgence.

In the kitchen I toast my pine nuts over a low heat. Mix them with (dark rye) breadcrumbs, parsley, thyme, salt, black pepper and a teaspoon of za’atar. Then add the finely chopped onion, garlic and zucchini that I’ve fried in olive oil. I bind the stuffing with a beaten egg, but you could leave it out and use olive oil instead if you want to make your dish vegan. I blanche the capsicums or give them a minute in the microwave to start the softening process. Once filled, they’re ready to go in the oven on a medium heat for about half an hour.

Pine nuts connect us to a world of remote villages and vast coniferous forests, to the world of fairytales and ancient foraging traditions. I’ve always liked the stark beauty of those northern forestscapes, with their understories of fungi, foxes and misfit children. While in Australia, in places like Oberon and surrounds, we’ve got acres of plantation pines—an environment I find unsettling, slightly spooky even. All those fish-bony firs, all those trees in straight lines …

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.