Friday, November 19, 2010

Man Goes Wild for Mangoes

The man not three meters away from me on busy Waigani Road in Port Morseby is wielding in one hand a knife around a meter in length, blade blinding silver in the sun. But I am unafraid.  I smile as I pass by, not submissively in hope of avoiding an imminent attack nor smugly, sure of deflecting any on-coming blade with my laptop-stuffed billum. No, I am smiling because in his other hand he is holding a lasciviously yellow mango which he is casually slicing, and I am sharing a moment of pleasure with him, anticipating the sweetness of the fruit sliding off the blade of the knife into his mouth.

This is not unusual behaviour in Port Morseby in mango season. Yesterday, I passed a young woman walking during her lunch hour, a smaller knife in hand, also slicing, almost unthinkingly as back home in Sydney someone might walk along chewing on a sandwich. Tell the truth, just plain carrying knives in public is not that unusual in Papua New Guinea generally. And I had to stop all my child protection adviser instincts going into over-drive once as a child of perhaps five walked happily around his house yard slicing a cucumber with a kitchen knife easily as long as his forearm with nary an adult or elder sibling in sight. But this blog isn’t about the risky business eating can be in PNG. It’s about mangoes.

When did I first meet a mango? Probably infancy, a slice or mush fed to me by my ayah, or a seed to grasp in toddler hands and suck, a more satisfying soother than a sterile dummy.  I can’t remember when I first had firm just-ripening tart mango slices, pale yellow tinged with green, dipped in salt and chili powder, but it’s those bought as an after-school snack wrapped in a pocket made from no-doubt-lead-saturated-inked newspaper, sold by the women vendors at the school gate, and consumed on the bus home, that are remembered most strongly. Mango appeared early in fruit salad after dinner, too, alone or with chunks of pawpaw and pineapple, a squeeze of lime juice, and thin slices of lambent green chili. Strongest in food memory is the first taste of mango acharu, fat slices of golden succulent sweet ripe fruit soaking in a souse of vinegar, sugar and chili powder, served again in a newspaper dish that deteriorated satisfyingly as you scoffed the mango, inevitably leading to licking palm and fingers as the finale.

In the early years of life in Australia, mangoes were a rare and expensive treat, unless you lived in northern Queensland or the Northern Territory as my brothers did, where they grew in every backyard and on every street as in Sri Lanka. When I had them in the dry heat of a Singleton summer in Singleton it was out of a can, flaccid, stubby oblongs in overly sweet syrup with that peculiarly glavanised tinny underflavour, spooned gracelessly over a mound of imitation vanilla ice cream. From there it was not much of a step up to the no-real-fruit-used-in-preparation-of-this mango syrup in milkshakes and smoothies, just a thicker, creamier version of the emulsion that resulted when you left canned mango and ice cream too long in the bowl. Granny Smith apple wedges dipped in salt and chili eaten off a plate were a tragic t.v. snack post school.

When I began to travel in South East Asia, I somehow managed to always arrive post or pre mango season and this has continued in the last few years when I’ve come to PNG for work. Last year I at least had the pleasure of making a mango pickle from small unripe mangoes scrounged from a roadside tree, splitting them in half, removing the soft white of unformed seed, salting drying them for a few days, soaking them in vinegar, turmeric, chili powder, ground coriander and cumin, fresh red bullet chilies and vegetable oil and bottling the mix for a couple of weeks in a dark cupboard till the mango rehydrated and softened. It accompanied a couple of night’s curries and I bequeathed it to my hosts.

This year I came in September just when the first fruit began forming, dangling tantalizingly on their slender stems (and isn’t the mango most generous of fruits, putting itself within such easy reach of hand or stick?). It was a stay too short for pickling or ripening. I spent an anxious couple of months back in Sydney hoping that my final visit for the year would coincide at least with the last of the season.  And so it’s proved. Mangoes are everywhere in all stages of fruitfulness. At lunch today I bought from a women vendor outside the office what’s locally called a ‘pawpaw mango’, a good hand span long and a fist thick, hence the name I imagine, in an elongated S. I also bought a knife, albeit a petite picnic one. Tomorrow I hit the street.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Spice Wars

I was debating what to blog about today - spending an unconscionable amount on half an imported black truffle (which I plan on shaving some off tonight to top off a broad bean, spinach and chanterrelle risotto (the broad beans and spinach from the side veg patch) or my delight at finding THE tech solution I have been looking for to how to watch the Simpsons, SBS News and the ABC news which span the time slot 6.00pm - 7.30pm and still get my cooking done, the tv is in a room that is quite separate from the kitchen area and so I have since the renovations had to do some prep pre Simpsons, then watch bits of SBS News while darting in and out from the kitchen hoping to have all cooking away while I catch the first half of ABC News and then sit down to eat (yes, I  admit in front of the tv) during the 7.30 Report - which has at times I confess led to slightly overcooked asparagus or a tad too browned souffle, all of which can now be resolved by simply plugging in a HDTV tuner into my laptop and having that on the kitchen bench.

I was, as I say wondering about which had the most in it to blog about (not ANOTHER blog about the delights of truffles!!!), when I chanced on a fascinating article in the Sydney Morning Herald )SMH) Weekend Edition, November 13-14. Those of you who have wandered over to my Buth Kuddeh website will I hope have seen that I am creating a sort of on-line reference to Sri Lankan cooking, which includes short pieces on the historical influences on the cuisine as it developed over the last 2000 years. I am about to put up a piece about the influence from Arab and Persian traders who established communities in mainly Southern Sri Lanka, and will follow this with pieces on the Portuguese, Dutch and British, the common thread linking these four being the trade with India and Sri Lanka in spices and the chronology of battles to secure control over this for the European market.

The article in the SMH headed 'Canny investors woke up and smelt the spices' will be an interesting coda on the history once I flesh it out. Basically it is about the falling stockpiles of spices in India and what this is doing to the price of them - turmeric increasing by 64% this year which is apparently' three times the gain of India's benchmark stock index' (whatever that means, not being a share market nerd all I understand is that this is a VERY LARGE increase in comparison with your run of the mill portfolio of stocks), with the price on May 6th being a record $357USD for 100 kilograms. The author, Madelene Pearson, goes onto say 'Pepper futures have risen 51 per cent on the National Commodity & Derivatives Exchange this year, compared with a 20 per cent jump in the Bombay Stock Exchange Sensitive Index (I like that, the notion that a Stock Exchange Index could be 'Sensitive', I might even ask it out on a date), and the prices of Pepper on the Exchange touching a record of $499USD per 100 kilograms this week.

Then come some truly staggering figures, well to me, at least. 'India controls 42 per cent of the $2.8 billion world spice trade, and consumes 90 per cent of what it grows'. Now this is interesting to me on a three  counts given the history of colonisation driven by the battle for control of the spice trade. Firstly, the expression 'India controls', which must make the ghosts of Vasco da Gama and the remnants of the Dutch and British East India Companies grind their bones in anger that after all their effort and slaughter the bloody natives ended up with control and are screwing the world royally no doubt in this time of scarcity, to which I say a mighty Yippee!

The second is the implied massiveness of the Indian spice producing industry if 90 per cent is consumed locally and there still is enough to control 42 per cent of the trade with the rest of the world. Granted there are nigh on a billion Indians (there well of course be more given that keeping a sensible census in India is I would think a somewhat Sisyphean task - by the time you get around to a figure you need to start all over again to take account of all those born while you were doing the counting) but this still says to me that it is surprising that the Sub Continent isn't permanently blanketed by a haze off ground spice, and that the monsoon winds heading across the Indian Ocean to the Arabian Gulf (don't you dare blog me about my shonky geography - you get the point) are not still spoken of as perfumed with spices.

Thirdly, I am intrigued that spices can be so expensive that the rise in prices in this commodity bundle alone makes up a substantial part of higher food costs in India which are the biggest contributor to inflation there.

So, an issue I thought was over, alarm at the cost of spices, is not in fact. I await more information to see how what is happening on the Indian market is impacting on the prices of spices here in Australia, if at all, and to see how this new phase in the battle plays out.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Third Garden Post

When I hit my mid-40s I finally landed back in a house with a garden, a quite big one at that. The first years here were tentative in terms of doing much with the place as I was only renting and the back garden was a three-sided very well established courtyard (New Guinea impatiens, a Chinese silk tree, a very tall maple, a well established olive tree, a pomegranate shrub, sundry ferns and leafy things, no vegies) and the front was also well established and included a mango tree, another olive and a guava, a bottlebrush, a fat red hibiscus, a very tall black wattle, and a carpet of what used to be called Wandering Jew. Along one side there was a small weedy area where the clothes line is which featured a gnarly old frangipani, a lime tree and a spindly mandarin.  Along the other side was a mess of small shrubs and trees that formed a natural boundary with the neighbour, another frangipani, a bohinia that was busy strangling a camellia, a murraya (aka false jessamine/ mock orange). There was also another camellia in the back garden and one by the front door.

The olive trees hadn't fruited but did subsequently and I had one crop from the one in the back garden before it blew down in a high wind, and three crops from the one in the front till it just decided one day to turn up its toes and die. The guava tree gives me a good crop each year which gets made into Sri Lankan guava jelly, the pulp left over from straining the jelly being used to make guava cheese which is like quince paste. The mango makes sterling efforts each year but just doesn't get there, which is a great disappointment as that of Charlie-across-the-road groans with the buggers every year. Oh yes, there was also a fig tree in the backyard (I told you it's quite a big yard for where we live in Inner West Sydney) which didn't produce much, whereas again Charlie's did and does. And also a very large bougainvillea hedge along the back fence, and a pale cream boronia rose. The front garden has a rambling rose also.

When we undertook the inevitable Sydney Inner City renovations all yards bar the front garden were pretty well trashed, only the plants along the back fence, a jasmine creeper, and a flowering box bush surviving unscathed in the back, and the bohinia, murraya, bohinia, flowering ginger, and monstereosa making it through one side renovation, and the plants on the street side past the clothes house also happily being undisturbed. I now had (and still have) half ownership of the house (well, the BANK has most of the half, but I like to pretend I am landed), and the possibility of establishing a garden that I hoped never to have to leave till dead.

It's taken several years to get it nearly to where I just have to maintain what's there, or replace the inevitable failure-to-thrive, or dug-up-yet-again-by-the-bloody-dogs. The backyard now has a small bay bush, a kumquat (which gives me excellent crops each year and which I either pickle or eat whole in the fashion of my Sicilian sister-in-law, or give to our friend Colleen to make into jam), a lemonade tree which I turn into said cordial via a recipe from Matthew Evans which you can check out on my foodie website, a banana plant which is a rescue plant from a root stem found tossed on a footpath somewhere and which gave me my first hand of bananas this year (a ladies' fingers type, short and stubby and sweet), alpine strawberries growing in between the brick flagging in the courtyard (from a plant give to me by my dear mates from Mt Wilson who also gave me some red amaranth plants once which of course now come up every year, too), three varieties of chili (I had a lovely bush that grew to 2 metres next to the back gate till it one day passed over), and this year I have created a small bed (into which I have liberated the chilies from their former pots) and have rosemary and tomatoes in it (it's the sunniest part of the whole yard and the tomatoes are clearly happy). Apple mint also grows among the bricks, and in the raised bank in which the kumquat and bay sit I also have a cascading rosemary and a land samphire (sent to me from Victoria by George Biron, Pan bless his socks).

I had a papaw tree which delivered me a couple of fruit but it lost all its flowers this year, and lost my favour too and has been terminated. In the 'water feature' I've got two kinds of cress growing, (one of which is from a small creek/nursery run-off in Sydney Park where it grows wild and unappreciated). There's also little clumps of lemon balm here and there where the seed takes, and in a small side bed I'm growing sage, thyme, parsley, and a betel leaf vine.

Marilyn, my house partner, and I have got vegie patches down the clothes-line side now also, and we are looking forward this year to mesclun, oakleaf lettuce, cavalo nero, silver beet, broad beans, beetroot (the soil isn't fantastic for them but we do get nice baby beets and the leaves are great done as a Sri Lankan mallung), pumpkin, zucchini, more tomatoes, eggplant, choko (with which I have fallen in love, soooo adaptable!), chives, salad burnetkarawilla vines underway.

A regular feeding has given me crops of quite sweet mandarins the last two summers, and the lime tree keeps me oversupplied.

When the local Council was ripping up the concrete footpath to lay down grass we asked permission to have a garden there instead, and now we have three types of thyme, two of sage, a lemon, an avocado and a coffee tree. The latter is the third generation from one that was in the backyard before the renovations and which every year produces a crop of cheery red baubles. I collected them over the last two seasons and am planning on having a go at roasting my own beans in the next months. I just got a small kalimata olive that's covered in blossom which I hope will set. It's planted in the front where the former tree flourished. There's a growing patch of pennywort/gotukola in the front, and some in a pot in the backyard which should keep me supplied with leaves to make a mallung or to flavour rice. Oh, there is also a lemon grass in the bed with the tomatoes in the back yard, and a pot of basil. The fig tree died but Charlie-across-the-road seems to want to give me another. There is a scarily thriving curry leaf tree near the clothes line which is due for a serious cut back so the new growth can take over and perhaps be a tad more carefully managed. And finally, there are two passion fruit vines, one of which gave us fruit last year, and both of which are now in full flower.

Flowerwise, I've got ivy geraniums trailing down the fence, azaleas that do their thing in Autumn and Spring, some roses in the back, a small yellow flowered goodenia which is struggling but will make it through, the camellias remain, as does the wisteria I neglected to mention earlier from the first incarnation of the garden, there are two standardised bougainvilleas to go with the hedge at the back, the bohinia continues as does the flowering box. A stand of queen-of-the-night self-seeded near the garage, and we planted some along the side too over the grave of Short Black the cat. There are daffodil, freesia, jonquil, and autumn crocus, and some hippeastrums who had better come good this year if they want to continue in my favour. A fellow dog-walker put me on to standardised grevilleas of which there are two in the backyard which give the noisy miners in particular much pleasure. A swathe of alstromeria in the front gives pleasure unbound, and I've now got some at the back also. One year for no reason I could see New Zealand Christmas Bells appeared in the front yard and now are everywhere. I've finally got a Christmas Bush in the front yard, and there are two new frangipani, two new grevillea, a Geraldton Wax, a neem tree (I have visions of brushing my teeth with the stems), and down the side of the front is a jungle of gymea lilies (which bloomed once and never again), white bird of paradise (which a dear friend bought as a birthday present for me thinking it would remain a petite shrub but is now well and truly tree size), a bougainvillea that escaped me, and a kaffir lime tree.

All of which keeps  me kinda busy, with little time to properly maintain the murraya hedge down the street side of the front garden, nor the lillipilli near the front door which has now achieved its desire to be a rainforest specie.

A section of the old sandstone and brick low retaining wall that is our boundary to the footpath and Trafalgar Street collapsed on Monday and we will take this opportunity to completely renovate the wall. This will mean major disruption and probably loss of the red hibiscus, a lovely creeping coastal grevillea, and another low growing native whose name I have been careless enough to forget. But what opportunities it presents for some radical re-shaping of the quite lone stretch of the front!

Which brings you up-to-date on where my gardens have been and are at. This has all been by way of introducing you to what some of my future blogs will be, to wit, the garden, focusing on the fruit and veg but with the occasional breakout to coo over the flowery bits, too. Hope you enjoy them.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Garden Post 2#

I don't count the work I did with my mum on the Army Camp house as my garden. So, my first garden was a modest affair around the garden tap in the Moorebank house. I was in my cacti and succulent phase then. I made a border out of sandstone bits (not the blocks, the stone shaped bits) scoured from bush nearby, and painstakingly crushed a heap of house bricks to make the pebble effect - I was doing this on the cheap. I bought half a dozen or so succulents from a nursery and relatives and friends of my parents gave me some cuttings. I was taken by the variety of shapes of the succulents mainly, and also by their flowers.

I did a similar garden when the family moved to the Campbelltown house, but I was less interested in maintaining it as I didn't live there at the time - I was at university and beginning my transient student housing days. Most of the student houses I shared with others wouldn't support a garden, their yards often being concrete or brick paved. The one house where we did have a garden was in Short Street, Balmain, where a pumpkin, some tomatoes and a herb or two struggled on for the 3 months we were there. That was the other factor limiting student gardening days, you were likely to be on short leases and starting gardens seemed pointless. Pot plants on the other hand were transportable and at various times I moved along with palms, ribbon grasses, ferns (frequently short lived), ivy geraniums (which mum had got me started on back in the Moorebank house) and creepers of various kinds. In summer there would be a pot of two of annuals, often petunias and sometimes marigolds. African violets were often occupants of bathrooms.

Muswellbrook, further up the Hunter Valley to Singleton, was where I had my first job, and I ended up living in an abandoned weatherboard and timber floored farmhouse with a yard of wild grasses and a huge water tank (our only drinking water and also the water that was pumped through the wood chip stove for washing). It had a verandah on which potted plants from the last of the student houses took up rural life, and the first of my herb pots, those tallish jar shaped terracotta planters with little open pockets on the sides into which to plant cascading herbs like thyme and oregano. I hadn't the energy to think about breaking up and building up the soil in the yard for vegetables.

Here I have to recount the death of my first and second dogs. Jenny was the first, a lovely Labrador cross retriever who came to us in the Moorebank house and was always considered my dog. She lived with my parents at Campbelltown during my student days and came up with me to Muswellbrook where she had the run of the farm and the surrounding fields. Unfortunately it was the latter that I should have thought more about. She and her playmate Carla, a gorgeous Afghan belonging to Phil who was sharing the house with me at the time, went out one morning while we were out and Carla was the only one who returned. Jenny was either bitten be a snake or perhaps shot by a farmer when she got too eager about playing with the cattle as she was wont to do. The second dog was Bluey, a predictable name for a blue cattle dog, who I found dead in the yard one afternoon having scoffed down much of a packet of snail bait I had been using on the herbs.

Muswellbrook was an 18 months stay and then it was back into the city and houses without yards suitable for gardens. So the pot plants and herbs came down with me from the country to begin the next round of short term accommodation. The herbs dropped out of the scene along the way and the pot plants became my constant green companions. There was the house in Leichhardt where a vague attempt at a garden was tried, dominated by a zucchini of considerable authority, but mostly it was palms, ferns and philodendrons again. I am happy to say I spurned the ubiquitous rubber tree, and sad to say I nurtured a lovely fiddle leaf fig for some time before it decided life in a pot was not for it. Another attempt at a garden was begun in Louisa Rd, Birchgrove, remembered mostly for luckily not eating the leaves of what John had thought was borage but which was in fact a foxglove. We left the house before the garden got established enough to give much pleasure.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A First Post on My Gardens

I am going to claim my father as the first person ever to grow karawilla/bitter gourd, and vatakolu/ridge gourd in Australia. This was in 1966 at the Married Quarters on the Singleton Army Camp in Singleton, Hunter Valley, New South Wales. I freely admit that he grew them from seeds smuggled in by his cousin, as were several varieties of dried chili and a quantity of spices. It was understood that when family migrated to Australia from Sri Lanka they would bring the curry wherewithals that were unobtainable in Australia at the time, packed in a suitcase, and would produce them thrillingly on the first visit to the earlier emigres at which time they would promptly be used to make a 'real'Sri Lankan curry. The karawilla and vatakolu were grown in the backyard, fertilised with chook poo and cow manure (the former from our neighbour,the latter collected by dad and I in the paddocks of the Army Camp which were hired out for agistment of surrounding farmers' cattle.In that garden were also some chili plants, brinjal/aubergine, beans and tomatoes.

This wasn't his first garden. That was also in Singleton but in the house we lived at in town in Buchan Avenue. The house is still there but there is no trace of dad's garden. The yard seemed vast to me, 11 years old at the time, dominated by a wooden set of swings at the bottom of the sloping drive (into which I crashed the first time ever I rode a bike - my brothers urged me to get onto it at the top of the drive and 'just pedal', which I did, careening down the drive and having no idea how to use the back-pedal brake and being too scared to turn the handlebars - both bike and rider survived and true to the old saying I got up and onto the bike straight away and was riding reasonable confidently by the end of the day). Dad dug the lawn up behind the swings to create two long and wide beds which he built up with copious quantities of soil and manure. This garden, from memory, grew tomatoes, lettuces, beans, pumpkin and watermelon from seeds bought I think from the Farmers' Coop in town.

The second garden, at the Army Camp, was smaller, the yard being limited and dominated by a rotary Hills Hoist. He didn't get long to enjoy the garden as he was posted back to Sydney in early 1967, leaving behind a last vatakolu that he was particularly proud of. Vatakolu have a natural tendency to curl in on themselves and growers tie little stones to the tip of the gourd facing downwards to keep them growing straight. This particular one had grown to quite some length but was not ready to be picked. Some months later, dad opened the door of our new home in Moorebank, Sydney, to find a very nervous NCO holding tenderly a metre long vatakolu. He had been instructed to bring this to dad with all care, and the poor bugger had had a stressful drive down along the then gravel and twisting Putty Road, having been warned that should it break he was bound to get hell from the Major.

The Moorebank house also had a big yard and dad set about making vegetable beds here too. He grew eggplant, tomatoes, capsicum, beans, pumpkin, but sadly no karawilla or vatakolu. It was also the last vegetable garden he maintained, the next houses we moved to having little space for them, and by then the labour of creating and maintaining them also was probably getting a little daunting.

It was mum who grew the flowers. The first of her gardens I remember was in the house of my birth in Fort Street in Colombo, the main flower here I remember being zinnias, starting a love affair with them that I still have, though I don't grow them. The next garden I remember more vividly in the last house we lived in before we left Sri Lanka, in Tourner Road, Borella. The house belonged to her uncle and we rented it. In the backyard (a narrow strip of dirt and gravel) there was a king coconut tree, short enough and with enough of a curve for us boys to climb and bring down a coconut or two in season (and to use as a ladder to get onto the parapet wall between us and the tenements behind and play trains on it, treading carefully between the broken glass our uncle had embedded in the cement capping to prevent people from the tenements climbing into our yard - we were roundly yelled at when he caught us at this one day as by then we had pretty well knocked off every piece of glass), also a lime tree (of which in a moment of whimsy dad once cut of a branch, stripped it, painted it black, stuck it in a jar of sand covered in crepe paper, stuck balls of white cotton wool on the branches and created that year's Christmas tree), and a letukocha tree whose leaves were used to shred and feed the chooks we raised in what amounted to a chook folly built by NCOs working under dad in the Ceylon Army, a two story affair of solid timber and wire mesh. At least one year I recall we also grew manioc in the backyard.

The side passage of the house and the narrow front garden were mum's domain where she planted some dozens of types of hibiscus ( I recall going with her to nurseries to find new varieties) and the inevitable crotons. There was a low hedge between this garden (more a patch of dirt with a sorry excuse for a lawn) and the gravel road in front, the leaves of which I used to love to chew, an acrid and somewhat tanniny, like ti tree leaves (Leptospermum) and which I also used in my first attempts at cooking in a brew I fancied as tea. There was also a bower over which grew a white and pale gold honey suckle whose flowers I plucked to suck the nectar out of the thin funnel where they joined the calyx. There were also balsams of three or four shades of pink and mauve whose seed cases I loved popping.

The Tourner Road house I also remember for the enourmous tamarind tree in a neighbour's yard whose fruit we used to eat green or collect and take to swap for acharu from the woman at the top of the street; for the billing tree in another neighbour's yard whose sour fruit (quite the sourest I've ever eaten) I used to pick and scarf down, leading to more than one upset tum; and a huge hedge of red hibiscus where our gravel lane met the main part of Tourneur Road, whose flowers we used to pick and make shoeflower tea, steeping the flowers in hot water till they turned a pale lavender, removing them and adding milk and sugar to the infused water.

I think I recall mum growing gladioli and jonquils in the house in Willoughby, Sydney, our second house in Australia, the first having been a cottage on an orange and apple orchard at Arcadia run by the Sacred Heart Fathers, and whose main floral feature was a front bed of small red roses (which in my typical way I took to eating the petals of, a habit I still indulge in) I am pretty sure she continued the gladioli along the front fence of the house in Buchan Avenue, and then I recall quite strongly the front garden in the Army Camp in which zinnias, cockscomb, jonquils, balsams and, yes, gladioli featured.

This may also have been the first garden where geraniums appeared. They were to be the main feature of the front and side gardens in Moorebank, with mum collecting colours and leave shapes here as avidly as she had hibiscuses in Sri Lanka. Her favourite and mine was a pelargonium called fifth Avenue which was a deep red almost into black.

And it was in the Moorebank house that I began my gardening career.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Smell, the Forgotten Sense

Don't get me wrong, I understand the need for extractor fans in small enclosed kitchens, esepcially where they are embedded into a laminate and timber cabinet above the stove that is likely to suffer severe steam peeling if the said steam wasn't speedily wafted away. But I worry about the extent to which they remove from the cooking arena the smells of cooking (I like smells as the word here, aromas sounds a tad benign for say the robust and complex nostril tinglers that waft up from a fish curry).

The thought is sparked by waking up this morning relishing that the shirt I wore to dinner at a Korean BBQ last night still smells of the smoke and fat from the copious quantities of meat we devoured (Number 1 son had requested eating somewhere where there was meat meat and more meat to celebrate is birthday and Number 1 daughter and I were happy to oblige) was viscerally stimulating.

Yes, viscerally, as in stimulating, as the Macquarie Dictionary defines them, 'the soft interior organs in the cavities of the body, including the brain, lungs, heart, stomach, intestines etc. especially such of these as are confined to the abdomen'. I don't have the science to show it, but I am firmly convinced that smells prepare the parts of the body for the work it is anticipating - the need for saliva to be ready to smooth the passage across the tongue and down the throat (Pavlov anyone?), the need for the gut to be juiced ready for digestion, the lungs and heart to start heavy duty fuelling of the muscles, the alerting of the neuronal pathways to the pleasure producers in the brain to be rapid response ready.I loved hearing that Kylie Kwong walks around her restaurant with a pan of roasting spices before she lets in her first diners to build up their anticipation of what's ahead.

I can't remember the last time I read a restaurant review that talked about how the food smelled. In these days of prioritising the plated product, sight gets more than its jsut share alongside taste, sometimes more than it's share. But smell doesn't get much of a look in. And yet, some of my strongest food memories are of smell. I love the moment when I open the jar of umbalakuddeh/Maldive fish that's a feature of Sri Lankan sambols and get hit with its salt-pan pungency, a smell that meant coming home from primary school and being  free to run around till sunset and dinner. As I write this I can distinctly smell the stinging sharpness of the chili and vinegar souse of mango acharu sold by the woman at the top of the road, a smell of excitement and independence and my first commerce as I handed over to her tamarinds from our tree in exchange for the accharu, or made the choice to spend my pocket money on this and not on musk cigarettes - another potent smell memory, powdery and somehow old.

And so to extractor fans, and air fresheners and deodorants and a sadness that we seem bent on removing from our lives this source of so much sensory pleasure. We humans as it is have left smell on the evolutionary shelf, unable to detect except in its most obvious manifestations.  It's a shame to seek to push it further into the background of our lives.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The War Against Earth

Okay, I am not, emphatically not, a Gaia-ist. I do absolutely accept and work within an understanding that the earth is a single ecosystem whose complexity gladdens me each time I dip into my weekly copy of New Scientitst. Hell, I think can go further and accept the whole dang universe is one big complex system that we should seriously think about mucking around with, which is in part why I am very scared of the growing support for doing stuff like nudging asteroids out of the way of ramming into earth given that we can have no way of predicting which other poor planet's path we nudge it into, and anyway, while I love dinosaurs I'm not sure I want to be one so I kinda like the idea that someback then the slamming of an asteroid into the Caribbean did for those scary/lovable reptiles.

But as for going all spiritual about this interconnectivity, well that's not me. So I usually don't heed much anyone rabbiting on about Gaia's laws for this and that, or the notion of waging war against a something/body called Gaia. So I'm glad that Vandana Shiva left Gaia out of her speech as recipient of the 2010 Sydney Peace Prize till after she'd said a heap of other stuff that had me nodding and smiling. [Or at least, the edited version of her speech as published in the Sydney Morning Herald 4th November left Gaia till a couple of pars before the close.  Maybe it was a clever ploy to suck me into nodding and smiling when the Gaia reference came up too!] The title of this blog is the title of the article in the SMH and her use of the metaphor of war was potent and pertinent to me in ways I wouldn't have expected. Here are a few quotes from the speech that resonated with me.

'When we think of wars in our times, our minds turn to Iraq and Afghanistan. But the biggest war is the war against the plant'...The war against the earth begins in the mind. Violent thoughts shape violent actions. Violent categories shape violent actions. And nowhere is this more vivid that in the metaphors and methods on which industrial, agricultural and food production is based. Factories that produced poisons and explosives to kill people during wars were transformed into factories producing agri-chemicals after the wars.' 'The war mentality underlying military-industrial agriculture is evident from the names of Monsanto's herbicides - "Round-Up", "Machete", "Lasso" American Home Products, which has merged with Monsanto, gives its herbicides similarly aggressive names, including "Pentagon" and "Squadron" '.

Okay, I knew about Round-Up, and I confess I have in the past used it to kill off privet. But I had taken it's name more American-cattle-Rawhide-innocent. But put it alongside the others and you do wonder what herb the lab lads of Monsanto have been at to come up with a string of names that do sound as a set arguably consciously framed in seeing what they are involved in as a war, which should give us pause. I didn't know about the transformation of munitions factories into herbicide/agri culture ones, though that may just mean I have, as often, read shallowly in this area - hey, until recently I thought Monsanto was just a cement manufacturer. But it isn't just this, for me, revelation, that struck me. It's where Shiva takes this perspective of violence and war within food practices that arrests me in particular. She goes on to say this:

'Violence to the soil, to biodiversity, to water, to atmosphere, to farms and farmers produces a warlike food system that is unable to feed people...There are three levels of violence in non-sustainable development. The first is the violence against the earth, which is expressed as the ecological crisis. The second is the violence against people, which is expressed as poverty, destitution and displacement. The third is the violence of war and conflict, as the powerful reach for the resources that lie in other communities and countries for their limitless appetites.'

The image of a 'warlike food system' I find particularly powerful, though for me as I think about it I push it's operation further back than the development of agribusiness, thinking about the Western programs of colonisation and their impact on the foodways of the colonised and the violence of this not only in practices like enslavement on sugar plantations, or the treatment of cinnamon growers in Sri Lanka, but also on the health and well-being of the colonised as for example in the link between the introduction of sugar and white flour into the diet of indigenous Australians and the development of Type 2 diabetes within indigenous populations, or the clear evidence for obesity in immigrant Asian populations as a result of adopting Western foodways in their countries of settlement. My ideas are not fully formed, as you can tell, but the idea of food violence is bringing things into focus for me in ways I know will be useful for me in future when thinking about foodways.

The final section of Shiva's speech that struck me is this:

'The growth of affluence, measured in money, is leading to a growth in poverty at the material, cultural, ecological and spiritual levels. The real currency of life is life itself.'

Check out the full text of the edited speech here. [As an aside, for those unfamiliar with Hinduism, one of the aspects of the god Shiva is that of the destroyer, which makes it a tasty irony that the thrust of Vandana Shiva's talk is against the destruction of Gaia/the planet.]

Monday, November 1, 2010

Aboriginal Fishing and Gathering Rights on Inland Waterways

Do Aboriginal communities in inland Australia have rights over fishing and gathering in and along inland rivers similar to those rights enjoyed by coastal Aboriginal communities? The question arises from time spent last week at a forum organised by the Upper Murrumbidgee Catchment Coordinating Committee looking at the state of the catchment and what work is being done on preservation and rehabilitation of the catchment.

The forum and the associated field trip (held on the riverbank at Tharwa) were addressed by Adrian Brown, newly appointed  Aboriginal Liaison Officer with ACT Parks and Conversation. Adrian outlined in brief some of the past indigenous land management practices of the Ngunnawal people of the area, of which Adrian is a member. He talked about significance of the river not only as a food and recreation source (recalling fishing trips with is father), but also it's place in ceremonies of his people. Ngunnawal boys' initiation took place over the course of a walk upriver into the [Snowy] mountains, with ceremonies at sacred sites along the river at each of which more of the law was taught to them, growing them into adulthood as they walked till the final ceremonies in the mountains at which they were fully received as adults into the community.

Adrian told us of how at adulthood members of the community would choose to accept management of a resource on behalf of the community and the way in which those with different responsibilities would work jointly where these overlapped to ensure the sustainability and availability of the resource. For example, he posed the question of what would be the overlap for those who had charge of kangaroo management and those who had charge of management of  parrots. The answer, which we foodies, landcarers, waterwatchers and others didn't identify, was grass seed. When kangaroo populations would grow overlarge they would overgraze the grasslands reducing the seed availability for the parrots, so the parrot managers and the kangaroo managers would get together to strategise, which would perhaps lead to an agreement to cull the roos.

He described how when he and his father went fishing, they would have to burn a pathway through the thick growths of blackberries and other introduced species along the banks. What began as something natural to do became illegal over the years with the local bushfire brigades haring to the sites to douse the fires and putting Adrian and his father at risk of heavy fines. He recalled sitting on rocks above with his dad and having a good laugh at the bushies dousing the blaze.

It was at that point I asked whether indigenous people to his knowledge had rights over fishing and gathering on inland rivers in the same way as coastal people do over fishing in the sea within their traditional lands. The question was sparked not only by his talk but also by a letter I had seen in the Sydney Morning Herald that morning which was the first to raise the question of what Aboriginal community input there had been into drafting the plan of management for the Murray Darling Basin, the subject of vociferous opposition from whitefella landholders along the catchment. Until I read that letter, I like I would guess most of us who have been following the discussion on the Basin plan, hadn't even thought about the use that Aboriginal communities made in the past and were probably continuing to make now of the river, the riparian corridors, and the grasslands and forests dependant on and impacting on the flow, turbidity, fecundity etc of the river system. I know of the work at preserving the Aboriginal fish traps at Brewarrina, and like many others have made lame attempts at rapping along with the Wilcannia Mob on 'Down River', there infectious evocation of hot summer days jumping off bridges, catching bream and playing the didge. But I had never wondered about where Aboriginal communities' traditional usage practices of these rivers came into conflict with private landownership or indeed conservation management.

The Ngunnawal people, Adrian said, don't have any formal rights over the use of the Bidgee, and he wasn't aware of anywhere else where Aboriginal communities do have these rights. He said that he knew of some who still went fishing (and I guess hunting if not gathering) including in national parks or conservation areas where rangers were apt to turn a blind eye. But this meant that there exists no legislated right for the Ngunnawal communities to be consulted when questions of the management of the catchment come up. It does happen in practice of course, with statutory authorities and community groups engaged in management and rehabilitation projects certainly consulting with the communities, but that's not the same thing.

As it happens, the first speaker of the Forum, Peter Hairsine, Deputy Chief CSIRO Land and Water, raised this issues of Aboriginal land management practices and how little even such an august body knew about them and the gap this left in both coming to understand the impact of these on the quality of the Bidgee catchment prior to white settlement of the area. Peter handed each of us a small plastic pill tube in which he had collected some sediment from the river and pointed out that of what we were looking at about 1% was sediment that could be dated and hence attributed to pre-white settlement time, with the overwhelming majority of it having been deposited as a result of clearing and pasturing practices within the first 50 years of settlement, a frightening picture of how quickly degradation can occur. Peter talked about the minimal impact that Aboriginal fire stick cultivation practices pastoralists. But while this much is known, there is much, Peter said, that is not known, or has not been asked, of indigenous land management practices that should be considered in strategising remedial and conservation activity.

[The impact of the pastoral practices has also been seen in the rapid change in the composition of the fish population in the Bidgee with something like a reduction to just 4% of native fish species in a representative catch, the other 96% being mostly introduced European carp who are comfortable in a more generalised environment than the native species who relied on the chain-of-ponds style of watercourse with its mix of deep pools and dry weather interruptions and low turbidity. The chain-of-ponds no longer exist by and large, erosion into continuous gullies having developed.]

Happily one of the outcomes of the Forum is a commitment to engage Aboriginal communities more in planning the on-going management of the catchment. But it would be great to hear also that their rights to traditional uses of the river are formally reinstated.