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—
  boxes of Atora suet

and a drawerful
of cutlery
  out of shape.

None of it
will ever be used again
  its owner.

There’s a violence to this
tidying away of a woman
  yet cremated.

Little white maggots
in their primary coloured

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

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

steamed puddings and pies—
British stodge
  its best.

My mother was old school
believed all sickness
  be cured

with water
and will power.
  it couldn’t.

I remember this kitchen
Woman’s Hour on the radio;
  out bowls and spoons.

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

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

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.

The Kobe Women’s Club Favorite Recipes

Even if you could find an outward flight, because of Covid-19 we can’t leave the country without a special exemption. So with actual travel off the agenda for the foreseeable future I’m visiting other places through my collection of cookbooks and culinary literature.

Where to start this journey? The Basque country? India? Britain? Korea? I’ve got a fair number of books from these regions—recipes, kitchen tales, horticultural and food histories.

How about Kobe?

Favorite Recipes Kobe Women’s Club, 1953. I found this book in a charity shop in Brisbane, paid $2, took it back to the apartment I was staying in and Googled the title. As you do.

Originally known as the Saturday Morning Club, the Kobe Women’s Club was established in 1914 by a group of expat women who recognised ‘a strong community need for an organisation that would offer English-speaking women of all nationalities an opportunity to socialise on a regular basis’. Eight years later the Saturday Morning Club became the Kobe Women’s Club—and it’s still going strong …

Back to the book. It has no introduction and is entirely composed of recipes contributed by individual members. Measures are imperial or in American cups and the dishes are divided into the usual categories of the period. Chapters entitled ‘Cookies’ and ‘Cakes and Frostings’ indicate the book’s American leaning. Perhaps reflecting this—or the make-up of the club’s membership—the offerings are more culturally diverse than many community cookbooks of the 1950s. There are recipes for beef stroganoff, sardines Swedish style, pizza, linzertorte, an unpleasant-sounding veal scallopini and from Mrs Harry Witt, ‘Chief of Dixie Mission’ chili con carne. 

I’ve got a few cookbooks like this one. Compilations put out by clubs, community associations and specific groups—often as fundraisers. The Kobe Women’s Club Favorite Recipes, like others of its ilk, has a mix of recipes, some quite appealing, others not so much. Baking powder biscuits, anyone?

Although the authors were living in Kobe, there’s little mention of Japanese ingredients or culinary techniques. The final chapter is called ‘Oriental Dishes’ and as well as sweet and sour pork, nassi goring (sub-headed ‘fried chili rice with meat’) and samosas (‘minced meat pastry’) from Mrs J S Wadia, there are two specifically Japanese recipes. Tempura and chawanmushi, which is a savoury egg custard, made in this case with chicken.

December before last I was in Japan and visited Kobe. It’s an attractive and cosmopolitan port city. A maritime gateway from the earliest days of trade with China and home to one of the first foreign settlements after Japan reopened to the world in the mid-nineteenth-century. If you’re a meat-eater you may know Kobe for its famous marbled beef, but is is also known for its chocolate and for its Western-style cakes and confectionary. Not to mention okonomiyaki and sobameshi, a down-home local speciality of stir-fried noodles and rice.

The Kobe Women’s Club was one of several women’s clubs that emerged in the early twentieth century in Japan. The Tokyo Ladies’ Debating Society was founded in 1908 under the direction of Dr Marie Stopes. In 1910 it became the Tokyo Ladies’ Club until three years’ later when the ‘Ladies’ became ‘Women’ and the club was thereafter known as the Tokyo Women’s Club.

Tucked inside my copy of Favorite Recipes was a handwritten letter to ‘Dear Alfhild’. Two recipes, one a citrus-flavoured dessert, the other caramel pudding. ‘These sweets are rather nice for the hot weather, and sending them in case you haven’t them. Buy gelatine loose—is cheaper than done up in cartons, Mum.’

I find these old community cookbooks fascinating. For what they tell us about everyday eating, about home cooking and changing attitudes towards foreign fare. About what foods were affordable and readily available and what weren’t. And for the homesickness I read between the lines.

Barmbrack a.k.a. Irish tea loaf

If the depleted flour supplies at my local supermarket are anything to go by, people are still doing a lot of baking and bread-making. It’s forever since I made bread and my baking repertoire is limited. One thing I do often bake though is barmbrack a.k.a. Irish tea loaf or tea brack. Its Irish language name is báirín breac which translates as speckled bread. And it was once reserved for holidays and high days, especially Halloween.

A precursor to Halloween, the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (the end of summer) marked the conclusion of the harvest season and the beginning of the dark half of the year. During Samhain barriers between the physical world and the realm of the spirits became porous. It was a time of danger, a time charged with fear. And a time of rituals and practices designed to counter supernatural threats.

A rich, slightly moist fruit loaf that goes brilliantly with a cup of tea—or a tot of whisky—barmbrack recipes tend to be flexible. The one I use is from The Australian Women’s Weekly Best Ever Recipes, which I bought when I lived in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains in the 1990s. That cookbook calls it Fruit Loaf, and as you can see from the photo, over the years I’ve added my own splotches, notes and alterations. I’ve reduced the quantity of sugar, for example, (dried fruit has its own sweetness) and swapped brandy for whisky.

Maria looked forward to her evening out. The kitchen was spick and span: the cook said you could see yourself in the big copper boilers. The fire was nice and bright and on one of the side-tables were four very big barmbracks. These barmbracks seemed uncut; but if you went closer you would see that they had been cut into long thick even slices and were ready to be handed round at tea.’

The quote is from Clay by James Joyce, a short story from his collection Dubliners, published in 1914.

Barmbrack comes studded with surprises. Traditionally bakers mixed tokens into the batter. Discover the pea (or bean) in your slice and you’re heading for singledom, while the finder of the ring can expect to be married within the year. Find a coin and look forward to a prosperous future—unlike the person who bites into a piece of cloth. They face hard times.

Raisins and sultanas are essential, but otherwise it’s up to you. I like dates, mixed citrus peel and the tang of currants. Some recipes call for glacé cherries, which look pretty, but I prefer my loaf without. The recipe I use adds chopped walnuts, others chopped almonds. Again, up to you. The main thing with whatever dried fruit combination you go for, is that you soak it in strong black tea, preferably overnight.

I’m not much of a spirits drinker, but I’ve got a heavy hand when it comes to the whisky. My Women’s Weekly recipe lists one tablespoon of brandy. A few barmbracks ago, and with no brandy in the house, I turned to a long-unopened gift, a bottle of Johnnie Walker whisky. Splashed in a generous ¼ cup. Given the loaf’s Irish ancestry I should probably use Irish whiskey (with its additional ‘e’) but once cooked, I doubt anyone will be able to tell the difference.

Before chemical raising agents were available, barmbracks would have been leavened with yeast. Modern recipes use baking powder or self-raising flour. Some recipes suggest nutmeg or a pinch of mixed spice. And happily for anyone on a low-cholesterol diet, this is a fatless cake. It contains no butter, margarine or oil, and only a single egg. Although slices are generally buttered, a good barmbrack is moist enough to enjoy plain.

Be careful not to overbake or you’ll end up with a dry loaf. If the top looks to be going too dark towards the end of its time in the oven, cover it with foil. Once cool, resist—if you can—the temptation to eat it immediately. Wrap your barmbrack in layers of baking paper and foil and keep for a day or two before cutting into it.

A slice of Irish tea loaf, a cup of tea, a good book. One of life’s—and lockdown’s—deep pleasures.

Here’s James Joyce again:

When the cook told her everything was ready she went into the women’s room and began to pull the big bell. In a few minutes the women began to come in by twos and threes, wiping their steaming hands in their petticoats and pulling down the sleeves of their blouses over their red steaming arms. They settled down before their huge mugs which the cook and the dummy filled up with hot tea, already mixed with milk and sugar in huge tin cans. Maria superintended the distribution of the barmbrack and saw that every woman got her four slices. There was a great deal of laughing and joking during the meal …

Wow. Four slices!