This little bourgie goes to market …

The Minister for Competition Policy and Consumer Affairs, Chris Bowen, announced today that he’d formally received the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC’s) report on grocery prices. It’ll be public next week, but it’s already apparent that it will recommend unit pricing. At least that will save those poor blokes you see in the “baby aisle” doing mobile phone calculations to work out which size package has the cheapest unit price on nappies – hint, fellas: it’s always the smallest packet.

I don’t hold out much hope for the ACCC review. There will be Strong Measures to Increase Competition amongst supermarkets, of course. Zoning laws to stop capitalist bullies. And even a “GroceryWatch”. I shit you not. Why bother when “Coles and Woolworths together control 78 per cent of Australia’s packaged grocery sales worth $59 billion a year.”

The issue of food security and how we should eat is getting a lot of coverage on Radio National, in part connected to the delivery and release of the report. Life Matters today featured a great discussion about how pricing and availability affects people on lower incomes (you can hear the segment here for the next week, after that this site will give you the idea) and Encounter looks to be covering it from a more global perspective. (Sunday am/Weds night or podcast).

So with all this earnest concern I’ve been pondering t h e – g o b b l e r ‘ s question of whether a “War on Foodies!” is coming:

‘Aren’t they just pushing a very sophisticated & elite point of view?’ was the point I gleaned from tonight’s Counter-point on ABC’s radio national.

This implication combined with the very real emerging divide between the realities of nourishing your family within your economic actuality & the constant barrage of cooking celebs insisting that unless you are buying free-trade, seasonally, locally, SOLE [sustainable, organic, local and ethical] etc somehow you are not doing the right thing & you have a compelling recipe for disenfranchisement. This is what is pounced upon by those who are keen to get traction with this cultural-divide argument.

I agree that celebrity chefs can be annoying, but anyone that driven in their life is usually a bit painful. And while equitable access to food concerns me, truth be told I’m not that worried about ending up in a food culture war, for I shall beat their puny warriors over the head with slabs of my frozen homemade veal stock and their inadequately nourished bodies will crumble before my righteous wrath. Ha!

Cooking at home is a joy for me, but it isn’t for many people. Apparently some of them get pissed off finding out what they’re missing out on. More fool them.

If you’re attempting to make a convert, you could do worse than Mochachocolata-Rita’s list of reasons in favour of home cooking, which boils down to it’s fun, cheap and gets you the sexies. (Usage note: that final term being the one currently employed by my kindergartener son and his best mate; the correct construction is that you “do the sexies” on someone.)

While I’ve always been interested in food and cooking it wasn’t until my first stretch of stay-at-home mothering that I began making almost all the food we ate each day. It’s what made me a good cook, rather than a just a bourgie girl with a lot of cookbooks and a well stocked pantry.

Because we were living on one income, and not a huge one at that, I needed to wise up. I started shopping at the Fyshwick and Belconnen produce markets, and for a while when we were really skint I would buy a week’s worth of fruit and veg in the last hour of sales on Sunday before the Fyshwick markets closed until the following Thursday. We never ate badly, but I’m glad that I don’t have to fight my way through all the diplomatic plated cars for a park at Fyshwick on Sundays anymore.

Grey industrial sceneFor a long while, I became a serious fan of the Canberra Farmer’s Market. I don’t remember hearing about it starting up, but it wasn’t long after it was begun in early 2004 by the Rotary Club in nearby Hall.

My joy came partly because I could buy Infinity sourdough there. One of the biggest (and saddest) adjustments following moving to Canberra in 2002 was the lack of proper bread, particularly since I’d been living in Enmore in inner Sydney and was accustomed to being able to buy La Tartine bread at the Alfalfa House Co-op at end of my street. *sigh* But then I found Silo, which makes better bread than Infinity.

Still, many of the good things at the Market are very, very good. Like the warm spiced apple cider you can see my shadow clutching over there ⇐

Despite being generally very happy with the produce, I stopped being a fan of the whole “Farmers’ Market” experience. It was a combination of little things. There was an element of the Free Range Children Market For Inner City Pretentious Wankers, to borrow a term from Purple Goddess – I’m looking at you, posh lady with the $9 jars of “breakfast prunes” – but it wasn’t just that.

Celery The punters began coming earlier and earlier, and some stall holders were so busy serving customers two hours before the markets were advertised as beginning that they didn’t have time to set out their produce properly. Part of the whole relaxed and friendly vibe of the markets was lost in the crowds of pushy people. And until they put up signs forbidding it, people took dogs into the food selling areas. Alright, you’re in a building that says “Sheep Pavilion”, but you wouldn’t dream of taking your stupid fluffy white dog to the supermarket, would you?

I became annoyed that some stalls were obviously reselling purchased items – the variety and seasonality of the produce ostensibly from one origin gave it away. And some smaller stallholders whose produce was really out of this world – like Tallabung heritage breeds pork, the best pork that I have ever eaten – sold their business and while the brand is sold there, it’s lost the artisanal flavour that made it so astonishing. And it’s a lot more expensive. So I was pleased to see the markets separated into a “direct producer” and “not” sheds last year, as it meant I had to do less wandering to find the stalls I was after.

Rose Muffins from Amore CakesBut even despite the consistently excellent quality of the best stallholders – my favourites are the fresh South Coast seafood, the Amore cakes, Li Shen exotic mushrooms, Yulin Shanghai tofu and street snacks and Glean Na Meala spuds and greens – I found myself going to the Farmers’ Markets less and less. Since Glenn Na Meala opened Choku Bai Jo, I’ve been to the markets on one exploratory trip, for this post.

I might have gone more often if their website wasn’t so difficult to use – it’s a great example of how to stuff up using the web.

The site is set up as an internal administrative tool rather than a communication tool; I want to know what people are going to be selling this week, not where to download a form to sell my produce. Fair enough that there be a admin area for stallholders, but how about a simple site that is useful for customers too? Even an email newsletter that says what’s on this week? What to make with it? Their PR people seem fixated on mainstream press coverage rather than making their clients’ goods accessible to lots of different types of consumers. In summer, there are fantastic peaches and nectaries straight from the growers in Araluen – but how do you know when they are arriving? (When peaches are in season, I know, but you get my drift.)

In discussions at playgroups and waiting to pick up kids from school I hear other food loving parents complain that going to the markets has become another chore, rather than a pleasurable way to buy your food. I’ve also heard complaints that it’s not always cheaper than the supermarket. To my mind it needn’t be, because the quality and freshness are so much better, but to many people Farmers’ Market = super cheap. Something else for the PR peeps.

The site’s photo galleries are terrible – it’s a popup and the images still bear their camera sequence names. But it’s surprising to see the difference between April 2004 and now; maybe twenty stall holders and a couple of dozen milling food lovers then and two big sheds plus two separate outdoor areas and hundreds of regular customers now. The rest of the set from my trip to the markets is up at my flickr.

I will still go to the markets occasionally, and probably more in spring and summer. But for now, it’s just not worth the bother, when $45 at Choko Bai Jo buys you this (including the bowl of local hazelnuts), most of it organically produced but not certified organic, and sorry about the photo:

The Capital Region Farmers’ Market is held Saturdays at Exhibition Park (EPIC), from 8-11 am


Food Writing and Activism

My friend Jonesie tipped me off on an interesting looking free lunchtime talk at ANU next Tuesday, 5 August:

Enabling New Ways of Thinking about the World?: The Australian Food Writer as Activist

Food writing makes up a significant proportion of the books, articles, weblogs and other texts written, published, sold and read each year in Australia. While the food writing in cookbooks, magazines and other publications is often thought of as providing useful, but banal, practical skill-based information, recent scholarship has begun to suggest that food writing is a more creative, and interesting, form of cultural production.

As part of a biographically-based study of Australian food writers, this work-in-progress seminar focuses on the roles the contemporary food writer plays in an environment where food is the subject of considerable scholarly, policy and personal interest and anxiety. In such a context, a number of contemporary food writers engage with issues around food production and consumption. These issues include sustainable and ethical agriculture, biodiversity and genetic modification, food miles and fair trade, food safety and security, and obesity, diabetes and other health issues. In this activity, the Australian food writer is, moreover, not only a media commentator on these important contemporary concerns, but is, at times, a forward-thinking activist, advocating and campaigning for change.

Donna Lee Brien is the Associate Professor of Creative Industries, and Head, School of Arts and Creative Enterprise, Central Queensland University. She is the author of John Power 1881-1943 and co-author of the popular self-help books Girl’s Guide to Real Estate: How to Enjoy Investing in Property and Girl’s Guide to Work and Life: How to Create the Life you Want. Donna is widely published in the academic areas of writing pedagogy and praxis, and collaborative practice in the arts. She is the founding co-editor of dotlit: The Online Journal of Creative Writing and Assistant Editor of Imago: New Writing and Imago: Online. Donna is currently an Associate Editor of New Writing: the International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing (UK), and is on the Board of Readers for Writing Macao. She is the President of the Australian Association of Writing Programs and in 2006 was has awarded a Carrick Institute Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning

If I can find someone to sit on the one year old I’ll be there. Full details and contact info here.

A Dinner of Righteous Maturity to conclude a three lolly bag weekend

Five Kinds of Fuck-Off Rad

Rachel of Thus Bakes Zarathustra is presently sojourning with a bunch of Yankee pointyheads in pursuit of her PhD. Writing at TBZ’s previous incarnation she said:

The thing is the next day I came home from the library starving and sick of books, and there was a bowl of carrot and avocado salad in the fridge and this cake, and I ate it and I felt a rush of righteous maturity akin to flossing my teeth or getting a pap smear.

We all need that feeling sometimes, don’t we?

Continue reading

Sichuanese Hotpot

My dear friend Steevie is leaving Canberra for Northern NSW this week. His parents are ageing and unless one of the kids steps up, the farm – in the family for generations – will have to be sold. So he’s taken a year’s leave from work to test drive the farming life, pasture fattening steers and breeding bush chooks. It doesn’t hurt that the property, at the foot of the border ranges, is lush, well watered and drop dead gorgeous.

Thinking selfishly, there are some of Steevie’s friends who we know quite well, but not really well yet. We decided it was time to have them over for dinner before he left. No point not doing it properly, but little kids make elaborate plans difficult, so Sichuanese hotpot it was. All you have to do is make the broth and cut up some things to cook in it at the table. Of course, you can do this the simple way or the food nerd way. I chose the food nerd way.

Continue reading

The law of diminishing returns

A few days ago we went to stay with my old friend Tallullah (not her real name). She is a very old and dear friend, but has always been a rotten cook. In fact until recently the only interesting thing she’d ever put on a dining table was her naked self and her moistie of the moment. It was a crap old share house table and of course it broke.

Would you believe they then proceeded, lust undiminished, to the kitchen table and then broke it too? Well, they did. What propelled this concupiscent wreckery to the realms of share house legend was that they had resorted to busting tables only because the entire household – four flatmates and one weekend guest – had scored on the same evening. At a bar called, “The Private Bin”, about which I shall make no further comment. Tallullah, while a resident, had got home too late that night to enjoy the privileges of her own bed. (So you see why I did that with her name, now, huhn?)

That was nearly fifteen years ago, and Tallullah’s cooking has come a million miles from the two minute noodles and sliced up oranges she used to serve for dinner. Last week we had a very tasty lasagne – she told me she’d been working on improving her cheesiness, and the cheesiness level was excellent, intense and creamy but still light. She’d also made a beautiful salad of chunks of avocado, tomato, and cucumber with butter lettuce. Tallullah’s known me for a long time too, so she waggled a bottle of “Fat Free French Dressing” at me and said “You don’t want this, do you?”


Continue reading

Introducing FDB

fdbHe’s a complicated man, and no-one understands him but his woman…

Melbourne-based Perthling, musician, audio engineer, teacher, drunken dilettante and lover of all things thingy. Most pertinently food.

The picture left shows what he would look like with no beard, and somewhat less evidence of food.

Also going by the name of Fancy, your latest contributor finds himself equally at home screaming at the white maggots through a mouthful of lukewarm 4&20 at the MCG, as he does sweeping majestically into the lobby of Jacques Reymond and demanding their most available table at the first reasonable convenience. No, not that sort of convenience.

Contributions may range to the growing and preserving of things, but in the interests of ‘balance’, he has agreed in the main to represent the meat eating community.

While he doesn’t wish to usurp the authority of his esteemed host, he would nonetheless direct readers who object to people killing, cooking, eating (and writing about killing, cooking and eating) animals to refrain from fanning the flames of their outrage, by the elegant expedient of not reading the posts.

Please enjoy his first post, Wee Little Fishies Done Quite Rightly.

There will be a prize for guessing the reference in the title. Unfortunately, it is commensurate with the difficulty of the challenge.

FDB presents: Wee Little Fishies Done Quite Rightly

There’s something about fish on the bone that really works.

I know some folks don’t like seeing the remains of an entire animal on their plate, but the Dustbin of History awaits them. Such squeamishness betokens a deeper malaise – as they watch us inhale our quails and spatchcocks and whitebait, you can rest assured that they hate us for our freedoms. Just watch them is all I’m saying. Have you noticed that their eyes are too far apart? QED.

Anyway, strolling through the Queen Vic markets with my Lady Friend one day, bratwurst roll in hand, sauerkraut and mustard in my moustache, we happened across a mighty shoal of wee little leatherjackets. Now back when I was a kid in WA, this family of fish (or genus?…. um… *googles*…genus! – Meuschenia) were rightly prized for their succulent flesh, and as a bonus their eponymous skin could be sun-cured to make crappy, stinking wallets for sweetly indulgent relatives to discreetly bin.

Over in the southwest of WA, though, people wouldn’t keep them under 25cm or so, on pain of a humiliating public upbraiding from one of those self-styled enforcers from the Angling Gestapo (guilty as charged, m’lud). These critters at the Vic were weeny little things, maybe 15cm long, and half of that the head. So me and the LF put our heads together, and devised the following recipe, fashioned from our shared love of seafood and citrus, mine of saffron and hers of low-fat meals. The only other bit of food writing I’ve ever done was entitled Cooking With Fat, so I hope you can all appreciate my generosity of spirit on this last point. Anyway, on with the show…

Continue reading