The Book of Thistles

The Book of Thistles is coming …

From the wonderful UWA Publishing, the book will be released this October. More information here.

It fuses essay, monologue, poetry, digressions and archival collage. And there’s a section specifically on thistles as food.

Some plants have sustained empires and sparked wars. Some have ignited public outrage. Think tea, opium, tulips—and thistles. Yes, thistles. In 1852 South Australia passed its Thistle Act, probably the first weed control legislation anywhere in the world.

The word ‘thistle’ refers to a large and widespread group of plants. Several hundred species within the Asteraceae family, plus a bunch of other plants we call thistles—even though technically, botanically, they’re not. Google ‘thistles’ and many of the sites will tell you how to get rid of them. Dig a little deeper, however, and from this weedy territory other narratives begin to emerge.

Part accidental memoir, part environmental history and part exploration of the performative voice on the page, The Book of Thistles is about the cultural and social life of this group of plants we call thistles.

My plaice

I love fish. Sardines, sashimi, smoked haddock chowder, Portuguese bacalhau, Bengali fish curry … but most of all I love plaice. Baked or grilled with a smudge of butter, salt, abundant white pepper, parsley and a lemon wedge. Jazzed up with leeks or a light scattering of chopped olives and anchovies.

‘In the seas of Europe the Plaice is found considerably toward the north, so that it is known along the coasts of Sweden, and in the Baltic. It is also met with in the Mediterranean; but it is nowhere in greater plenty than in a moderate depth of water round the British Islands, where it forms an important object of the trawl fishery.’

That’s from A History of the Fishes of the British Islands by Jonathan Couch. It was published in the 1860s, before warming sea temperatures drove plaice and other species further north.

Plaice from A History of the Fishes of the British Islands by Jonathan Couch, 1862-5

The European plaice (Pleuronectes platessa) is a Northern Hemisphere flatfish. You don’t find it in southern waters or for sale in Australia. So I try to eat my fill on visits to England. When my mother was alive I’d cook fresh fillets or whole fish and serve them with a reduced fat rémoulade (one-third mayonnaise, two-thirds yoghourt, capers and fine-diced pickled gherkin).

More recent trips to England I’ve usually been staying in places with minimal kitchen facilities, so I’ve had to get my plaice-fix ready cooked. Before I discovered the rather wonderful North Sea Fish restaurant and take away during my last visit to London, this usually meant a fish and chip shop.

Grilled plaice at London’s North Sea Fish restaurant, March 2017

Popular fish cooking in the UK has traditionally involved a lot of frying, battering and bread-crumbing. While batter works for end-of-the-pier fish and chips eaten out of newspaper, when it comes to plaice I prefer mine batter-free. Its flesh is soft and delicate, its taste subtle, almost milky. A light, barely-there tempura-type batter might be OK, but thick batter overwhelms the fish. I also like plaice served cold in a Danish style open sandwich with shavings of cucumber.

Plaice is often eclipsed by its rich relatives, sole and turbot. For Jane Grigson ‘the sole is the darling of the sea. Of all the things we eat the greatest stimulus to chefly lyricism’. Plaice she regards as inferior in every respect. It belongs to a Britain of corner chippies, brass bands, Victorian brickwork and laundrettes.

Last month in London I used a laundrette for the first time in years—because along with no means of cooking, the place I was staying had no laundry either. While the dryers tumbled pocket dramas played out. Over the fabric conditioner an Aussie backpacker chatted up an American exchange student. An ex-soldier explained how PTSD made it impossible for him to travel on the underground.

Billingsgate has been London’s fish market since 1699. We went there on a school excursion.  Rendezvoused in the pre-dawn dark, climbed aboard the coach and headed to the Italianate building that housed the market before it relocated to the Isle of Dogs in 1982. Inside the slang was Cockney, the light murky and everything smelt fishy. Miss pointed out crates of glistening plaice, cod from the Arctic and boxes of exotica from distant oceans.

Plaice fillets on sale at Waitrose, March 2017

What does a plaice look like? This is William Yarrell’s description from 1836:

‘The character and appearance of the various species of Pleuronectidæ, or Flatfish … are so peculiar and so unique among vertebrated animals as to claim particular attention. The want of symmetry in the form of the head; both eyes placed on the same side, one higher than the other … ’

Yes, they look as if they’ve swum out of a painting by Picasso. One side is white, the other dark and freckled with spots the colour of orange cordial. This makes sense when you know that plaice spend most of their adult life lying sideways on the seabed. The fry resemble those of other fish with two eyes in the usual place, but as they grow, the left eye migrates to the other side of their head. And the plaice spends the rest of its life with both eyes staring up at the roof of the ocean, and no way at all of looking down. How did this asymmetry evolve? Even Darwin was baffled.

In a North London charity shop I found a slim hardback The Plaice being the Buckland Lectures for 1949 by R S Wimpenny. It’s one of those old, odd publications you sometimes find on the dustier shelves of secondhand bookshops or under a pile of blankets at a garage sale. One-hundred and forty-five pages inside a green cover. A whole book about the plaice … Wow.

Blastula and gastrula, operculum and optic vessels … It’s too technical, too scientific to be an easy read, but I do learn that concern about overfishing and conservation efforts go back to the reign of King Edward III in the fourteenth century.

Cultures have built culinary mythologies and identities around the cooking and consumption of certain seafoods—Japanese sushi, the bouillabaisse of Marseille, kippers and wild salmon from Scotland. Not so for the plaice. Flat of face, plaice is considered an unremarkable, also-ran sort of fish. Unlike Mark Kurlansky’s cod (A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, 1997) and Donald S Murray’s herring (How the Silver Darlings Shaped Human Taste and History, 2015) plaice didn’t change the world or shape human history.

This recipe for fish soup from 1852’s A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes highlights Pleuronectes platessa’s lowly status:

‘Cod-fish cuttings, Dutch plaice, skate, dabs, haddocks, cod’s-heads, cod’s tails, or any fresh-water fish you may happen to catch when fishing, conger eels cut in slices, and almost any kind of fish which may come within your means are all more or less fit for making a good mess of soup for a meal … This kind of fish soup will prove the more advantageous near the sea-coast, where inferior kinds of fish are always very cheap.’

Overlooked and under-rated it may be, but plaice remains my number one fish.

Where do rum balls come from?

Proust is boring, but his cakes are memorable.

Marcel’s madeleine is famous. By far and away the best-known portion of his seven-volume novel À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time). The narrator/author tastes a petite madeleine steeped in lime-blossom tea and

‘No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me … this new sensation having the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence.’

The cake triggers an avalanche of memories—of childhood afternoons at his aunt’s house in the country and much else.

My Proustian moment was round and chocolate sprinkled.

A sudden flashback of my mother standing outside a bakery in Potters Bar looking for something she’d never find. Something continental among the rock buns, and sponges bright yellow like their distant bath-time cousins.

A rum ball was the closest thing circa 1969 in Potters Bar—
0utskirts of London
gingerbread houses
streets of—
with extensions over garages
and private hedges.

The rum ball, as its common British name of ‘rum truffle’ suggests, is a small cake that leans towards the chocolate box. They’re a truffle-like confection made from leftover cake, sometimes with a few stale biscuits thrown into the mix, which is crumbled up with melted dark chocolate and rum, rolled into balls, and coated with sprinkles or cocoa.

On my list of favourite spherical foods rum balls are in the top bracket—provided they have the requisite rich, boozy flavour, fudgy texture and aren’t too sweet. Some recipes include dried fruit, glacé cherries or ground nuts. Some eschew the rum to make a suitable-for-children adaptation. Although to my mind, a rum ball without the rum is—well, not a rum ball.

Because they aren’t baked, the alcoholic kick remains. To my nine-year-old self, rum balls were part of the grown-up taste-sphere, along with liqueur chocolates and prawn cocktails. That was their primary appeal.

One rainy morning decades later, I’m eating a rum ball in a Pyrmont café. Remembering not only my mother gazing wistfully into that bakery window, but also Flury’s, Kolkata’s iconic tea-room—scene of another rum ball indulgence. Pondering the cake’s heritage and wondering where it sits in the Australian culinary landscape. Somewhere between the madeiras and shortbreads of England and the tortes of central Europe, perhaps?

Rum balls may be popular in Britain, but they’re also traditional fare in Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and elsewhere. Were they an ingredient in Australia’s continental shift? Think post-war delis, coffee lounges, pâtisserie and cookbooks featuring stroganoff, schnitzels, strudels and black forest gateau.

This is from 1955, from Maria Kozslik Donovan’s introduction to Continental Cookery in Australia:

‘I hope that this book will be regarded, not as another fancy cookery book destined for the gourmet or the collector, but as a good, down-to-earth companion for the Australian housewife … Most European countries are poor compared with America and Australia; consequently there is more imagination than money used in their cooking.’

What did that word ‘continental’ represent? Sophistication and worldliness? A generalised notion of Europe? Was it a way of acknowledging cultural difference? A more palatable view of migrants?

Rum balls are quick and easy to make and have the ‘no cooking’ advantage. Maybe that’s why they often appeared in those ‘How to Hostess a Party’ articles of the 1950s and 60s. September 1962 The Australian Women’s Weekly ran a five-page guide to ‘Entertaining at Home’. As well as mocha rum balls, recommended recipes included an awful lot of dishes made with packet soups, and advice like this:

‘If you don’t hire help for the occasion try to make sure you and your husband (or co-host friend) are not both out of the room at the same time.’


‘Discuss the menu with your husband or a man friend and let him select and order drinks and serve them during the party. It’s your job to see that he has plenty of bottle openers … and clean glasses, and to remove empty glasses unobtrusively for washing.’

A few chocolate sprinkles are all that’s left of my Pyrmont rum ball; my Proustian reverie winds up. I’m pretty sure the Flury’s offering had rum flavouring rather than actual rum, but the ones my mother bought that day from the Potters Bar bakery did have real rum in them. I remember the sales assistant laughing as she explained that no one would get drunk eating them. I remember her voice with its trace of accent—like the presence of a flavour you almost but can’t quite identify.






A lovely dish of thistles from the archive

I’ve been chasing themes through archives. Always interesting, but one of the things I particularly love about this kind of research is the serendipitous discoveries you make along the way.

Because of the project I’m working on at the moment, my culinary findings have a thistly focus.

Under the heading Lovely dish of thistles! The Australian Women’s Weekly of 7 December 1966 published correspondence from several readers who cooked with weeds and wild plants. My transcript of the two letters that mention thistles is below, and here’s the link to the whole column.

‘Like Mrs. Miller Foster, who cooks stinging nettles, I, too, like some of the natural foods. Some people steam milk-thistles, but I prefer the young leaves cut up and added to lettuce salad. Dock-weed pie was a favorite with the old pioneers when rhubarb was not available. The stems are cut up, boiled with a little water with the addition of sugar and lemon juice or tartaric acid, then put into a pie-dish and covered with a pastry crust. Stalks of rhubarb added give more flavour and colour.
$2 to Mrs. S. Campbell, Toowoomba, Qld.’

‘My item of free food is young milk-thistle leaves. Cut up like lettuce, with onion and apple added, it is a tasty salad dish. It is also good eaten in a sandwich with cheese.
$2 to Mrs. L. E. Collins, Wallangarra, Qld.’

Both women call the thistles they use ‘milk-thistles’. Variegated thistles (Silybum marianum) are often called milk-thistles, and while you could eat their young leaves, I suspect the thistles these Queensland cooks are collecting are sow thistles.


Advertisement for Thistle Semolina from New Zealand’s Wanganui Herald of December 1919. If you’d like to read the text of the ad, here’s the link to it.

It’s a poblano

The first time it was their sheer beauty. That simple. I bought them solely for their appearance. For their deep inky green colour and for the lustre of their skins. I’d no idea how I would use them, or even what they were, because the supermarket selling them had given a price, but no identity. OK, I knew they were a member of the Capsicum genus of flowering plants, but exactly what kind of member, and more to the point, what kind of note would they add to a recipe?

The extended capsicum family includes hot varieties and mild or sweet varieties, and they’re all native to the Americas. Spanish and Portuguese explorers introduced the plant to the rest of the world and it’s become an important ingredient in many cuisines. Imagine Indian or Thai dishes without chilli, Korean kimch’i minus the heat, or Hungarian cooking before paprika.

A bit of digging and I discovered my purchase was a poblano chilli, a cultivar of the Capsicum annuum species. It’s named after the state of Puebla in central Mexico were it originated. So no surprise, it’s common in Mexican dishes like the classic chile rellenos in which the roasted vegetable is stuffed with cheese, coated in egg, then fried. Immature poblanos are green, maturing to a brownish-red colour, at which point they may be dried and change their name to be known hereafter as anchos.

Poblano chillies

Quite large—the ones I bought were 9-12 centimetres long—with a hint of heart-shape, the poblano was a mystery to me and that gave it a special allure. It stood out among the supermarket’s rainbow display of its fellow nightshades (Solanaceae): red capsicums, yellow, orange, purple, and a whole spectrum of greens from watery pale to the dark intensity of the poblano.

Capsicums, a.k.a. peppers and piemento, were relative latecomers to Australian kitchens. ‘The flavour of green peppers, or capsicums is still unknown in many households,’ ran a sub-heading in a Sydney newspaper from 1950. Six years later The Argus (Melbourne) wrote that ‘with the influence of European migrants on local food tastes, it is inevitable there will be an ever increasing desire to grow peppers, or capsicum, in the home garden.’ A regional Queensland newspaper offered a different slant on the story: ‘American troops, stationed in Australia during the war, not only increased the immediate demand, hut also helped to make capsicums popular with Australians.’

Back to poblanos. While they tend to be mild in flavour, occasionally and unpredictably they can be hot, hot, hot. (The same is true of many capsicum varieties.) And the ripened red poblano packs more of a kick than the green.

When I brought my first poblano home, I cut off a slice to taste it raw. It had a subtle acidity and a fruitiness, which was enhanced by roasting. Their skins are robust and on the thick side, so I decided to experiment with stuffing them. First I tried a mix of cooked rice, smashed chick peas (also cooked), onion, garlic, diced tomatoes, cumin and a dash of cinnamon. Then I tried crab mixed with a small amount of béchamel and topped with breadcrumbs.

I liked the first stuffing better, but as with all culinary experiments, there’s a lot of trial and error. I needed to make it a second (and third) time to adjust the balance of flavours and spicing. I went back to the Coles where I’d bought my first poblanos. Fortunately there was a fresh supply, and this time they were (mis)labelled—as bullhorn chillies. But that’s a thing with the capsicum family, isn’t it?—lots of aliases and local names.

Black treacle and what you can do with it

Gingerbread is possible
Sticky pudding, sticky tart,
The art of fudging,
Squares of parkin
All round snacks
Biscuits naturally
Cornish fairings, brandy snaps,
Some sort of Scottish scone.

Toffee is another possible
Slab of. Hard as.
Takes a hammer to break it up.

Return to gingercake
Traditional boil-up of butter and syrup.
Muddy muscovado. Dark leftover. Or hangover.
Gooey residue of empire.
Steamed spongy basin-shaped. With moat.
Sweet classics.
(No brownies, cookies, muffins choc chip or otherwise.)
The odd savoury.

The odd footnote:
Suffragettes used toffee hammers
To smash windows and win the vote.


Black treacle

Turning vegetarian—well, kind of

About four months ago I decided to stop eating meat. I’d been thinking about the politics of food and feeling ever more uneasy (queasy) about factory farming methods and the cruelty to animals (and workers) that is the corollary of feedlots and a fast food industry that demands massive quantities of cheap meat.

In J M Coetzee’s novella The Lives of Animals, a delectable blend of fiction and philosophical essay, his character-cum-alter ego, Elizabeth Costello is invited to deliver two guest lectures. Costello surprises her college hosts by choosing to discuss not literature (her academic expertise), but what she calls a ‘crime of stupefying proportions’, namely the abuse of animals.

For the last couple of years I’d bought and cooked only free-range meat. Then I stopped ordering meat dishes in cafés and restaurants because I assumed their supplies were mass produced in conditions I preferred not to imagine. As is the majority of meat sold in supermarkets. Now it was time to go the next step and give up meat altogether.

Eating meat in suburban England in the 1960s and 70s was the default. Few questioned its place on the table. Although I do remember that steak was only ever an occasional treat, and the portions were small—tiny by contemporary Australian standards. When I went to London to study for a postgraduate degree I moved into a large communal house on the Islington/Hackney border. The house ideology specified a wholegrain and vegetarian diet. There was a lot of vegetable sludge, and to this day even the word ‘millet’ makes me run a mile, but not everybody in that house was a terrible cook. From the more adept, I discovered that meat was not compulsory; that humous, dahl, börek and lasagne stuffed with peppery watercress were delicious alternatives.

But it was Indian that became my go-to vegetarian (and vegan when required) cuisine, that got me cooking meatless on a regular basis. It remains my all time favourite fare, and is why Wigram Street in Harris Park has become one of my favourite Sydney streets.

Wigram Street, Harris Park, January 2016Wigram Street on a stormy summer evening

Last month I was invited to a dinner party by a neighbour. When I accepted the invitation I mentioned that I didn’t eat meat. A few days beforehand an email announced the menu: paella made with seafood and chicken. I clarified that I didn’t eat any meat. My neighbour had assumed it was red meat I’d stopped eating. And that’s a common—if inconsistent—position. Poultry is OK, beef is not. Yet chickens are mass farmed in equally brutal conditions.

Our relationship to the food we consume colours who we are as a species and as individuals. I’ve cut out meat, but continue to eat fish and some seafood. I try to ensure it is sustainably sourced, but I wonder: Does this put me in the ‘vegetarians who eat chicken’ camp? A group I’ve made fun of in the past. Maybe. Fish are not vegetables, no matter how you twist it. As for seafood, I’ve never been terribly keen on oysters, and after reading a science article about how intelligent octopuses are, I took them off the menu. Took off all cephalopods in fact. Yes, I know it’s irrational, but eating is an emotional thing.

Raising animals for slaughter isn’t just bad for the unfortunate cows, pigs, chooks and lambs. Research reveals the environmental toll. It takes three to fifteen times as much water to produce animal protein as it does plant protein. Tropical forests in Brazil and elsewhere are being destroyed to create more acreage to raise livestock … I could go on, but you get the picture. Food and climate change are inextricably linked.

We tend to talk about food and diet as matters of individual choice, and they are, but political, economic, agri-business and social issues also influence what we chose to consume. More recently we’ve acknowledged that personal inclination is only part of a larger reckoning; popular discourse has moved questions of animal welfare and environmental protection from the hippie fringe to the mainstream stage.

Luckily the life of a pesco-vegetarian is no bed of kale. I’ve always cooked a lot of vegetable, pulse and tofu-based dishes, and now I’m experimenting with old favourites like chilli con carne—minus the carne. My first ‘chilli con verduras’ used crushed cauliflower, but I used far too much of it and as a result the dish tasted—well, altogether too worthy. Back to the chopping board. This time I’m adapting a recipe I found online that is based on the long slow cooking of lentils and beans. (I’m not interested in ersatz meats or manufactured substitutes like Quorn and TVP.)


This is it, my chilli con verduras. Robust, spicy, and if I say so myself, pretty delicious.

For me personally, turning my back on bacon sandwiches wasn’t so much an environmental choice, as an ethical one. I find the operations of the meat industry insupportable. And in the end I couldn’t reconcile the cost of my diet—the suffering and slaughter simply so I could enjoy that bacon sandwich.

In The Life of Animals, Elizabeth Costello suggests that through acts of poetic imagining humans can ‘think their way into’ the nature of animals. Note that she says think your way not eat your way.