Australian Diary: August, 2017

July and August were monotonous months. It was wintertime in Canberra, which, particularly in the evening, meant wearing “singlets” under sweaters under blankets. It was cold outside, it was cold inside. The purple wool throw—purchased in touristy enthusiasm in Melbourne—was in near-constant use. Every evening the temptation was an Australian fixture: a warming cup of Milo. (Australians do seem to love their sweets, if the size of the supermarket given over to chocolate is anything to go by.) Since our apartment only gets the tiniest sliver of direct sunlight during the day, and the difference between sun and shade is a matter of several degrees, it meant we couldn’t resist turning the heat on at regular intervals. At church, after a brisk twenty-minute bike-ride, Candace usually motioned us towards a pew directly under the buzzing heaters, glowing in orange contentment. Yet, for all that, even in winter Canberra remains remarkably green and sunny.

The truffles used in cooking are, in terms of genus, fungus. More specifically, they’re a species of tuber, the part you eat being the underground fruiting body. This means that truffles are akin to mushrooms, though they don’t really taste, look, or feel anything alike. Truffles are more pungent, harder, typically blacker, and tastier. And that’s according to someone who enjoys mushrooms. As far as I’m aware, there aren’t that many places in the world where one can get local, fresh truffles, but in the past 10 years Australia has become one of them. Indeed, as we found out, not only can you buy truffles in Canberra, but there’s even a truffle festival. When Candace bought our first black truffle piece in July, she told me that the young woman in front of her—overhearing that she hadn’t ever cooked with them before—purchased $300 worth (weighing in at around 275 grams)! We spent a tenth of that amount, putting it in two different dishes: devilled eggs and a cream sauce fettuccini. When she asked him the best way to eat it, the truffle seller told Candace his most common way of preparing it was rather humble, in scrambled eggs. I can understand why. The black truffle pieces we bought were quite subtle. To my taste they possessed a light, yet rich, nuttiness. The trick seems to be to find a dish in which the truffle is accentuated or complimented, but not overwhelmed. I suspect that’s more difficult than it sounds. We only made the truffle pasta once, as good and simple as it was, because we found the truffle and devilled eggs combination to be an irresistible snack. But now that I think about it, I can’t help but wonder how truffle might taste in poutine.

During the first few months in Canberra we shopped at a local farmer’s market for everything from meat pies to vegetables to doughnuts. The artisanal variety of bread on offer was very good, and we bought several loaves over the first weeks. But we found it a bit pricey. So eventually Candace decided to try making an overnight, no-knead bread. We haven’t looked back since. It’s incredibly simple, taking less than 15 minutes of total active time. You simply mix the ingredients, let the dough sit for 12 to 16 hours, flip and dust with flour an hour before you bake it. It costs pennies, you can mix in whole grain to make it a touch healthier, and, as I’m sure many people reading this can attest, there’s almost nothing quite like the smell, feel, and taste of freshly baked bread. In fact, as I was writing this the oven-timer went off. I dusted the dough, taking in its slightly yeasty smell, flipped it, and wrapped it in a tea towel. Very much on the plus side, as the season gets warmer here in Canberra, so the dough rises more and more. We can actually see summer coming in the shape of our bread.

A short walk down the road from our apartment there’s a set of ponds, seemingly man-made, that are home to a range of birds. I first noticed this spot while out for a run, when a couple of brightly coloured birds meandered in front of me. Now, whenever I head out to take photographs, I tend to stop near the ponds to see if anything interesting is happening. To my pleasant surprise, there usually is. Next to a well-trafficked freeway, it’s unexpectedly peaceful and quiet here. The ponds and the canal that link them are at a substantially lower ground level, and the trees, bushes, and reeds that surround the water seem to mute much of the sound caused by passing vehicles. Most of the birds who live or stop here do not seem to be bothered by the nearby walkers, runners, or bikers. Though they tend to regard me with suspicion as soon as it’s clear I’m not just passing through. So far two of the most common species of bird I’ve seen at the ponds have been the Eurasian Coot and the Purple Swamphen, the latter being what I initially mistook for a colourful, wild chicken. The Coots tend to stay in the water and dive for reeds, while the Swamphens wander around, pecking at the ground, sometimes emitting a hilariously shrill squawk. Other birds that live near the ponds, or at least which I’ve photographed multiple times close by, include Black Swans, Australian Wood Ducks, Pacific Black Ducks, and Superb Fairy-wrens. The wrens are fast-moving, tiny, and jittery, tending to swoop in and out of the trees and bushes. The breeding males are extremely bright in colour, an eye-catching sky-blue, hoping around in pursuit of potential mates. My birding book, in keeping with irreverent Australian humour, describes these wrens as grouping together in “family parties.” Slightly less common, but seen on a few occasions, have been Masked Lapwings, Little Pied Cormorants, and White Face Herons. Only once have I seen an Australian White Ibis in the area, and unusually for the species, it was quite wary of me. In many places in Australia the Ibis is considered a “dumpster diver,” mostly because they congregate at beaches, parks, and waste dumps, eating the rubbish, rather like a seagull in Canada.

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