Travel

Mira Mira On The Wall

Another Winter slowly comes to an end in Melbourne as the wheel spins towards Imbolc, the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. Even though it is still cold, I can feel the Sun slowly coming back to life. The chill days are punctuated with more and more sunny breaks and the nights are not so bitterly cold. I spotted my first lizard a few weeks ago, a sure sign that Spring is on its way.

The return of Spring heralds the return of Persephone, one of my favourite Goddesses. Persephone spends Autumn and Winter in the Underworld with her husband Hades where she rules as the Queen of the Dead. In Spring she returns to Earth where she rules as the Goddess of Spring. In celebration of Persephone’s return, her mother Demeter slowly brings the Earth back to life.

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Normally I’m sad when Winter comes to an end but this year I am celebrating the return of the Sun. Surprisingly it’s due to a weekend I spent in Mira Mira, a bed and breakfast place that specialises in weird and wonderful accommodation. The property in Gippsland has a Zen Retreat, a Treehouse and a Cave. Naturally I chose to stay in the cave in the chill of Winter.

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When I arrived at the accomodation I was greeted by Magog, the doorway through which I was to enter the cave. After stepping through Magog’s mouth, I slowly descended the winding, stones steps. Fire lanterns adoring the walls threw strange shadows on my path. As I made my way into the womb of the cave, I felt like Persephone entering the realm of Hades.

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The cave was everything I hoped it would be. Carved into the hillside, the stone look was cosy and sumptuous. Coloured lights glowed eerily in the rooms and windows revealed surprising but stunning vistas. A log fire completed the scene. As I toasted marshmallows on the fire and snuggled into the lush blankets, I thought of Persephone and Winter.

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I had always thought that if I was Persephone I would resent having to leave the Underworld. But as much as I was enjoying my cave weekend of cold days, chill nights and warm fires, I was surprised to find a craving for the Sun take seed. As I ascended the winding stone steps, saying farewell to the realm of the Underworld cave, I finally understood why Persephone is happy to live in two domains. 

A few days ago I was sitting outside enjoying a sunny day. A sparrow flew into the yard and landed on my ram’s head skeleton. It cleaned its beak on one of the horns and then hopped about on the skull. I couldn’t help thinking “Quoth the Sparrow” – my apologies to Edgar Allan Poe. But as I watched the sparrow happily flit in and out of the skull, I thought it was a perfect symbol for the seasonal cycle of life and death. Persephone is now leaving the land of the dead and returning to the land of the living. And, for the first time in a long time, I am truly looking forward to the warm half of the year.

To celebrate the reunion of Persephone and Demeter I whipped up a classic bulgur wheat tabbouleh salad with the addition of pomegranate seeds. Wheat is sacred to Demeter and pomegranates are sacred to Persephone so I’m hoping the two Goddesses will enjoy this combination.

Pomegranate Tabbouleh

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Ingredients
1/4 cup bulgur wheat
1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
pomegranate seeds for sprinkling 

Instructions
Soak the bulgur wheat in the boiling water for 10 minutes. Drain well.
Mix together the bulgur wheat, parsley, mint, oil and lemon juice in a bowl.
Toss the pomegranate seeds through the salad and serve. 

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Witches & Fireworks

Last year my partner and I spent July the 4th in Salem – The Witch City!

Our day began at around 6.00am as our overnight plane from Seattle arrived in Boston. We caught a shuttle to the subway, and with the help of friendly train staff, caught two trains, finally arriving in The Witchy City.

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One of the first things to catch my eye was the Superior Court. Unfortunately this stunning building made me think of the witch hunts.

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Then I saw a newspaper vending machine which put a smile on my face.

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One of the things I was really excited to see was the statue of Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stephens! It was unveiled in June 2005 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Bewitched. I thought it was fun and suited Salem. A local resident, recognising my Australian accent, asked me what I thought of the statue. When I told her she replied “It’s ugly and I hate it!” With that stinging endorsement ringing in my ears we left Samantha and continued our exploration of The Witch City.

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Ever since I saw an episode of Bewitched that featured a spooky bedwarmer trapped in The House of the Seven Gables, I have always wanted to visit the historic house in Salem. The beautiful home was the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gothic novel of the same name. Coincidentally, Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem on July the 4th, so we thought it was the perfect time to visit. We arrived just in time for an afternoon tour. One of the first things we saw was a bedwarmer! There was also a secret staircase which we got to climb. After the tour we spent time investigating the grounds.

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On our walk back to our hotel we stopped at the Old Burying Point Cemetery, the oldest burial site in Salem. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s notorious great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, is buried there. He was a judge during the Salem witch trials and earned the nickname the “Hanging Judge.” Next to this cemetery is the Salem Witch Trial Memorial, a sombre and thought provoking memorial which consists of granite benches anchored into a low stone wall. Each bench is inscribed with the name of an accused witch, how they were executed and the date of their execution. I wonder what the “Hanging Judge” would think of the witches memorial sharing his resting place?

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The evening was upon us so we headed down to the harbor for the July 4th fireworks. Paul and I love fireworks and Salem delivered! Burst after burst of colourful fireworks crackled across the sky as we cheered in appreciation. It was a special moment for me. I’ve always envied America their Independence Day. Australia is still part of the British Commonwealth and I have always wanted us to break free and become an independent nation. Deprived of an Australian Independence Day, I happily latched on to this one and roared with the crowd. When the fireworks ended, Paul and I linked hands as we slowly walked through the misty streets of Salem to Gulu-Gulu Cafe for last drinks before bed.

We spent the night at The Salem Inn because I loved the name. Happily it was a lovely place and I adored the antique furniture in our room. After breakfast at the inn, we hired a car for our trip to Maine.

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A few days later we returned to Salem to drop off our hire car. There was only one way we were leaving Salem – and that was in a Witch City Taxi!

You can read more about my visit to witchy Salem and other parts of America in Bites and Pieces of America. The Salem chapter includes recipes for Waffles, Crepes, Omelettes, a luxurious Death by Cocoa and my spooky witches brew – Dark Ale Spider!

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Bites & Pieces

I celebrated the Winter Solstice weekend by launching my first travelogue cookbook!

It’s called Bites and Pieces of America: Exploring food and friendship in Whidbey Island, Salem, Boothbay Harbour and Boston. It’s filled with pieces from my trip last year from Australia to the USA where I got to visit a dear friend on Whidbey Island, celebrate July the 4th in Salem the Witch City, visit puffins in Maine and meet a baby sloth in Boston. There are also many bites of recipes from the foods that inspired me along the way.

While I’m hoping you’ll rush out and buy the book 🙂 I will share parts of the journey here. I’ll also include recipes that nearly made it into the book but just missed out like my Stout Pancakes (below). These are perfect for Winter in Australia. If you’d like pancake recipes that are more in tune with Summer – like Blueberry Pancakes or Carrot Cake Pancakes – you can find them in my book!

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Bites and Pieces is currently available from Lulu. An ebook is on the way and it will be in other online stores soon 🙂

Stout Pancakes

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Ingredients
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda (bicarbonate)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons maple sugar*
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup milk
3/4 cup stout**
butter for frying

Instructions
Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar into a large bowl. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg, milk and stout.
Add to the dry ingredients and mix until just combined.
Heat a small amount of butter in a non-stick frying pan over medium heat.
Pour some batter into the pan. Remember that the bigger the pancakes, the harder they are to flip, so don’t make them too big.
Cook until bubbles start to form.
Flip and cook for a further 1 – 3 minutes or until golden brown and cooked through.
Repeat with remaining batter.
Serve with your choice of toppings.
I like them with a good drizzle of pure maple syrup, golden syrup or honey.

*You can substitute brown sugar for the maple sugar.
**Try different flavoured stouts like chocolate or coffee ones. I used a maple flavoured stout.

A Twitch Of History

Growing up I hated learning history in school. Our lessons seemed to be focussed mainly on memorising dates which made history boring and devoid of life. Happily there was one place that taught history in a fun and exciting way. That place was my lounge room and the vehicle was Bewitched, one of my favourite television shows.

Throughout the eight seasons of this magical show, a bevy of historical figures were zapped into the future and forced to deal with the modern world. At other times characters were zapped back in time to experience history first hand. During the ensuing mayhem I learned so many things, not only about history, but about race relations, class prejudice and gender politics.

One historical lesson I thoroughly enjoyed was when Samantha and Darrin go for a holiday to Salem, Massachusetts. One of the places they visit is The House of the Seven Gables, an historic New England home and the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gothic novel of the same name. This episode features a spooky bedwarmer that follows Samantha and Darrin back to their hotel room at the Hawthorne Hotel, named after Nathaniel Hawthorne.

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Bedwarmer from the historic Altona Homestead in Melbourne

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born Nathaniel Hathorne in Salem on July 4th, 1804. It is believed that Nathaniel added the “w” to Hathorne to distance himself from his great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, a notorious lead judge in the Salem witch trials. Nathaniel used his ancestors as inspiration for many of his novels which explore colonial times and puritanical beliefs. He died on May 19th, 1864.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s deathiversary this Saturday is a special one for me. Last year I fulfilled a childhood dream to visit Salem Massachusetts and The House of the Seven Gables. I did this on July 4th, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthday. It was also Independence Day which added to the magic. My trip to Salem, and other parts of America, was so inspirational that I have written a book about it. I’ll be doing the final edit on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s deathiversary.

Before visiting The House of the Seven Gables for my own spooky adventure, I stopped in a cafe called Gulu-Gulu for a fortifying steamed milk drink. My version has a touch of Halloween pumpkin because I can never think of Salem without thinking of Halloween 🙂 

Pumpkin Pie Steamer

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Ingredients
I cup milk
2 tablespoons pumpkin puree, (homemade or canned)
1/2 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice mix*
2 teaspoons pure maple syrup
whipped cream for serving (optional)

Instructions
Place the milk, pumpkin and spice mix into a blender and blend until smooth and combined.
Pour into a small saucepan.
Whisk over medium heat until warm.
Add the maple syrup and keep whisking until the milk is simmering but not boiling
Poor into a heatproof cup and top with whipped cream if desired.

*Pumpkin pie spice mix is a combination of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and sometimes allspice.

This is my version:
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice

Mix the spices together in a small bowl.
Store unused spice mix in a spice container or small jar.

You can experiment with your own version but cinnamon should be the dominant spice.

Act 1 – Shakespeare Around The Globe

This Sunday is both Easter Sunday and April Fools’ day and I know which one I am most excited about!

April Fools’ Day for me is a day to celebrate the spirit of the tarot Fool. The Fool is the first card in the major arcana and it is the Fool who journeys through the tarot and learns the lessons of the cards. The Fool is so important it is the only major arcana card to be represented in modern playing card decks. In these decks the Fool plays the role of the Joker.

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fool card from the dracula tarot

The Fool symbolises new beginnings, adventures and journeys – that’s why I have adopted April Fools’ Day as my personal New Year’s Day. On April Fools’ Day I take time to look back on the year that has passed and make plans for the year ahead. What is most exciting for me is that my plans for this coming year are intertwined with the journeys I made this past year.

Last year I travelled to America and fulfilled a childhood dream of visiting Salem, Massachusetts. I also got to meet in person a friend I have known online for many years. Plus I visited the island where an Atlantic puffin I sponsor spends their summer. A few weeks ago I travelled to America again to attend a giant panda fan convention in San Diego, something I have wanted to do for many years. I ended this trip with a visit to San Fransisco where my partner Paul and I celebrated 30 years of not being married by walking on the Golden Gate Bridge 🙂 Both trips have been enriching and will provide me with inspiration – and recipes – for this year’s blog posts. They may also have given me material for a book or two!

What does this have to do with Shakespeare? Well Shakespeare was no stranger to the power and importance of Fools. Many of his most memorable characters were witty and clever Fools. Plus, it was two Shakespeare inspired establishments that provided me with comfort and nourishment in San Diego. That’s right – Shakespeare’s influence extends around the globe!

One of the things I love to do before I travel is research places to eat. Two of the places I picked in San Diego were the Shakespeare Pub & Grille and Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe and Afternoon Tea. I couldn’t wait to visit them.

The Shakespeare Pub & Grille was established in 1990 by British expats. It is modelled on a traditional British pub in English Tudor style. The food is classic British comfort food and the bar stocks beers from around the world. We ordered a couple of beers and their signature dish – Fish & Chips. We were treated to crisp and crunchy pieces of beer battered cod with peas and chips (fries) served with tartare sauce and malt vinegar. It was delicious. After such a tasty meal we had to try their desserts. Paul chose Sticky Toffee Pudding – a steamed light sponge cake covered in a sweet and sticky toffee sauce. He couldn’t decide between custard and ice cream so he had both. I chose something I have never tried before but have always wanted to – Spotted Dick! This amusingly named dessert is a steamed suet pudding containing dried fruit and is traditionally served with custard. YUM 🙂 Each bite melted in my mouth and I was rewarded with the scent and taste of a soft, warm and spicy fruit cake. The custard was smooth and creamy and complemented the pudding perfectly. We were ready to go back to the hotel and have a nap but we had one more culinary stop to make.

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Next door to the Shakespeare Pub is Shakespeare’s Corner Shoppe and Afternoon Tea which is run by a British family. We had hoped to have a cream tea in their patio tearoom but we were too full from lunch. Instead we decided to check out the store and see what they had on offer. Not surprisingly the shelves were stocked with British produce. Missing my nightly tea and shortbreads, I was happy to find a box of Earl Grey teabags and a packet of Scottish shortbreads. I also found an interestingly shaped spoon which the staff told me was a Black and Tan spoon used for pouring layered cocktails. As a fan of layered cocktails, I had to have it. In the fridge I saw a jar of clotted cream which I was so tempted to buy but valiantly resisted. When I went to pay I noticed they were selling scones to take home. I looked at Paul and he knew exactly what I was thinking – Cream Tea for Dinner! We grabbed scones, a jar of strawberry jam – and the jar of clotted cream 🙂 That evening we sat on the balcony of our hotel room and enjoyed our cream tea. We even had enough scones, jam and cream left for a cream tea breakfast the next morning.

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While there may not have been too much “Shakespeare” in this story I shall make up for that in Act 2, which tells a tale of my Shakespearean adventures in Melbourne. It will be closely followed by Act 3 – a recipe inspired by these tales.

If you are need of more adventure this Easter weekend there is a Full Moon to celebrate. And for those of us in Melbourne, Australia, due to time zone differences, this will be a Blue Full Moon!

Rocky Roads

Spending a weekend away in Walhalla proved more heavenly than I thought possible. Walhalla is a small town in Victoria, Australia. It started as a gold mining town with around 4,000 residents. No longer a gold mining town, it has a population of less than 20. Tourism is the big draw card now. One of the best things about the town is that there is no internet connection and no mobile phone reception. This meant we could unplug and enjoy a stress free weekend.

We stayed at the Brewery Creek Cottage, a quaint little place that had three of my favourite things – a spiral staircase, a four poster bed and a log fire. There was even a witch on the window! We spent the evenings enjoying a drink next to the roaring fire, playing board games and reading. The outside world was forgotten for a short time.

I chose the Brewery Creek Cottage because the path beside the cottage leads to the cemetery. That was something this goth could not resist! The winding and uphill path was challenging but beautiful. The trees seemed to cradle the path from high above. The cemetery, perched on a hill, had views to die for! Graves were dotted up and down the hilly cemetery. I gingerly picked my way along the path reading the ancient gravestones. I could have spent hours exploring but the sun was setting and I really didn’t want to navigate rocky paths in the dark.

Another reason we visited Walhalla was to take a ride on the Walhalla Goldfields Railway. As we sped towards Thomson, one side of the train passed rocky walls that were so close you could reach out and touch them – not that I recommend doing that 🙂 The track on the other side of the train ran precariously high above a forest stream. The drop from the window looked great. I kept jumping from side to side of the train so I could get the best views!

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After the train we went for a tour in the Long Tunnel Extended Gold Mine. I’m always nervous going into caves as I’m claustrophobic but I also love caves as they make me think of the Underworld and the home of Hades and Persephone. Luckily it wasn’t one of those cramped tunnels were you have to duck and crawl your way through. This tunnel was very roomy so I relaxed and enjoyed the experience and the history lesson.

Inspired by the looming mountains and the paths that have been carved through their rocky terrains, I thought I would make rocky road. Rocky road is a sweet made with chocolate and marshmallow. You can add other things to the mix such as nuts or Turkish delight. I have added glace ginger as a nod to the gold found in Walhalla. If you really want a golden experience, serve the rocky road with edible gold!

Rocky Road

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Ingredients
250g dark chocolate
50g white marshmallows, cut in half
25g glace ginger
50g cashews, roughly chopped
1/2 cup shredded coconut

Method
Line the base and sides of a square cake tin with baking paper (approx 20cm x 20cm).
Gently melt the chocolate in a small saucepan over medium heat. Allow to cool slightly.
In a large bowl combine marshmallows, ginger, cashews and coconut.
Pour in melted chocolate and mix through.
Pour into prepared tin.
Allow to stand for a few hours to set.
When set, cut into pieces and serve.

A Cup Of Coffee Comfort

I spent International Coffee Day (October 1st) thinking about how important a warm cup of coffee can be at certain times. My partner and I had planned a short trip to South Australia hoping to visit Adelaide and Monarto zoos. It was our second trip to the zoos this year. We went early in the year to see the giant pandas and for this trip we had a few more encounters planned. We were expecting our giant and red panda encounters to be cancelled as it is mating season, what we weren’t expecting was to drive into the worst storms in South Australia in 50 years.

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Pandacino at Adelaide Zoo. That’s right, a cappuccino decorated to look like a giant panda!

We drove through torrential rain, losing complete visibility of the road for one terrifying moment because the rain was so heavy. All we could think of was getting to our hotel safely and having a hot coffee and a warm shower. But as we continued driving we could see, or maybe not see, that there were no lights. The entire state was experiencing a blackout! We arrived at our hotel in almost darkness and had to sign in via candlelight. It was romantic and gothic. Hungry and in desperate need of a comforting coffee we were told that there was no hot food and no hot drinks. I didn’t care about the food but I did care about the coffee! As I sat down to eat my ham and cheese sandwich I did the only thing I could – order a coffee liqueur 🙂 The power came on just as we got to our room so at least we could have warm showers. Even better, there was hot coffee for breakfast!

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My first coffee in Adelaide!

The rest of the trip was quite an adventure. The blackouts continued and all of our Adelaide zoo encounters were cancelled. Happily, we did get to hand feed rhinos at Monarto zoo. We even found a restaurant that had its own generator so we could have hot food, and most importantly, hot coffee 🙂

Next time I travel I think I’ll take some of this granola so I always have some coffee with me. Naturally it goes great with a hot coffee – when you can get one!

Coffee Granola

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Ingredients
1 + 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/4 cup shredded coconut
1/4 cup walnuts
1/4 cup cashews
2 teaspoons instant coffee
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 egg white

Method
Preheat oven to 150C / 300F.
Line a baking tray with baking paper.
Mix together the oats, coconut, walnuts, cashews, coffee, salt, honey and oil in a large bowl until combined.
Whisk the egg white until frothy. Stir into the granola and mix until combined.
Spread mixture out onto prepared tray and bake for 50 – 55 minutes.
At the halfway point, remove the granola from the oven. Place a piece of baking paper over the granola and top with another baking tray. Carefully flip over so that the granola is now on the new tray, being careful not to break up the mixture too much.
Return to the oven and bake until granola is brown and dry to the touch.
Allow to cool completely before breaking up the granola into desired size clusters.
Store unused granola in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

You can try different combinations of nuts. I think macadamias, pistachios or brazil nuts would be great.

A Place Not Far From Home

So last year was my 50th Birthday. To celebrate we did a very special trip. Friends have asked me to write something about it and I’ve been waiting for the anniversary to do so. While I was writing, I saw an opportunity to enter it into a competition. It didn’t win but I liked the way it came out. I hope you do too.

A Place Not Far From Home

“I’ll be spending my 50th birthday in Canberra”, I told my regular travelling companion Trevor.

The look of horror on his face was priceless. “Have you been to Canberra?” he asked, stunned.

I have been to Canberra many times. Unlike a lot of Australians, I like our nation’s capital city. But I knew why Trevor was stunned. Trevor, my partner Paul and I were supposed to be travelling halfway across the world to England to celebrate my birthday, not Canberra, which is only a short flight away.

Ten years earlier, when I was planning my 40th birthday, the three of us started a tradition. We would each choose a holiday destination to travel to for our big birthdays. I chose a trip I called “A Dracula Tour of Romania”. My 50th was supposed to be part 2 – “A Dracula Tour of England”. Whitby was the prize destination. Sadly an ailing elder dog meant I couldn’t travel too far from home. Trevor went to Whitby and Paul and I took a short trip to Canberra.

On the eve of my 50th birthday, I woke to the sound of lions roaring in the night. They were so close. I could picture them walking near my window. I snuggled into the thick duvet, comforted by the warmth of the room and the sound of lions.

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Throughout the night I had been woken by their stirring call. Sometimes the roars were close, sometimes they were distant, every time was hauntingly beautiful. They made me smile. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my 50th birthday than in the company of wildlife.

When I knew I wasn’t going to Whitby for my birthday, I trusted that I would somehow find the right place to go. Sure enough, a few days later I was viewing an online newspaper when I saw an ad that made me look twice. The ad featured a photo of a woman taking a bubble bath while a European brown bear watched from outside her window. The words “wild”, “down under” and “Canberra” grabbed my attention. I knew immediately that this was where I would be spending my birthday weekend.

The ad was for Jamala Wildlife Lodge – the National Zoo and Aquarium’s new onsite accommodation. We had visited the zoo before, most notably to celebrate the very first International Red Panda Day, but never realised we could stay there. The secluded bungalows scattered around the zoo in the animal enclosures sounded perfect. Floor to ceiling windows gave you views of the animals as they went about their daily (and nightly) meanderings. An “al fresco” style section with heated pads and food treats was used to encourage the animals to come and snuggle down. I just had to choose which animals I wanted to “share” my room with. I chose the white lions for my first night and the European brown bears for my second.

Night one was more about sound than sight. While we caught glimpses of the lions and one came up to the window briefly, we mostly heard them roaring into the night, and were woken again by them in the morning.

 

After a sumptuous breakfast on day two we moved from the lion room to the bear room. There, snuggled warmly by our window, was a European brown bear. I wanted to squeal in delight but restrained myself, scared I might frighten the bear away. Instead, I calmly approached the window and quietly watched. We made ourselves cups of tea, munched on biscuits and relaxed on the couch, all under the watchful eye of a beautiful bear. Finally the bear left to do what bears do.

 

We reluctantly left our room and wandered around the zoo. We laughed when we made it back to the bear enclosure. One of the bears was enjoying a feast of fruit, vegetables and bread by a waterfall. We watched it for a while, before returning to our room. As before, the same brown bear was snuggled in the same place. We watched, mesmerised, as another bear arrived, grabbed some food, gave us a long, hard look and then left. We opened up a bottle of wine and shared the late afternoon with this most accommodating bear. Again, we were reluctant to leave our room, but dinner was calling and we were hungry.

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There are few lights in the zoo overnight and for our own protection, we weren’t allowed to walk around after dark. At a prearranged time, a bus came to collect us from our cabin, taking us through the pitch black of the zoo to the main hotel for dinner and drinks. The bus stopped a couple of times to pick up others from their rooms and we compared notes on our experiences as we rode.

A lavish South African inspired spread greeted us at the communal dinner table. I couldn’t wait to try the bobotie and malva pudding, both of which I’d heard of but never had a chance to try. The food was extraordinary and the wine selection suited it perfectly. We sipped wine and spoke to the other guests, each of us exchanging stories about the animals outside our rooms. The staff told us the main bear visiting our room was a female named Blondie. While we enjoyed the food, wine and the company, we were eager to get back to our room and hopefully a bear. In the meantime, we were entertained by first a pair of white lions and then hyenas as they were let into their dens for the evening. We could see them clearly from the dining room. We suspected that they could see us also, but they ignored us and after exploring their dens, curled up and went to sleep.

There was one birthday wish I deeply wanted granted. To have a bubble bath with a  bear! I really wanted to reenact the ad that got me to Jamala. We arrived home and Blondie had returned to her usual place. I was so excited. It was now or never for my bubble bath. I carefully filled the bath, making small, unhurried movements. I gingerly hopped in, hoping I wouldn’t startle her. I sat in the bath like the woman in the ad, watched by the beautiful brown bear. Then to my surprise and delight, another bear arrived. I lay in the bath, soaking in the soft, warm bubbles, watched by the gentle eyes of two extraordinary creatures. I had surpassed the ad. Not one but two brown bears were sharing my birthday dream with me. It was the most extraordinary birthday of my life.

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While I bathed with bears, Trevor had a drink for me in Whitby. Was I sad that I didn’t get to Whitby? Yes. Did I enjoy myself in Canberra? Immensely.

I didn’t have to travel the world to find a new and exotic place. I found one right here, in a place not far from home.

Come For The Snakes, Stay For The Pastry

At a romantic beachside restaurant in Fiji, my partner said the words I never thought I would hear, but so wanted to: 

“Vicky, don’t panic, but there is a snake behind you.” 

Shivering with excitement, I turned around. Three feet behind me was a stunning venomous sea snake. We slowly stood up and, with a brave few guests, followed and photographed the sea snake as it wound its way to the beach. We watched, mesmerised, as it slithered in and out of the rocky crevices. When it found the water we gasped as it picked up speed and swam away, making shimmering shapes in the water.

 

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We were in Fiji to celebrate the destination wedding of my lovely nephew to his equally lovely partner. Having a banded sea krait turn up for dinner was a real bonus for me. What I loved most about this snake was how slow and calm it was on land. It gave me a great opportunity to admire its luminescent bands and its sinuous body. In the water it transformed into a sea serpent, swiftly but gracefully swimming in “s” patterns as it disappeared into the ocean. It was quite a privilege to be so close to such a wild, exotic animal.

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In honour of this unexpected but much appreciated encounter I have created a recipe that combines my culinary Macedonian heritage with that of Morocco. M’hanncha, meaning snake, is a traditional Moroccan dessert made of almond paste filled rolls of filo pastry coiled to look like a snake. It is similar to Maznik, a traditional coiled Macedonian pastry. Maznik is usually filled with feta cheese but can contain many different fillings. A favourite of mine when I was young was a sweet apple and sultana filled one. I don’t have the recipe that my relatives used so I created my own version from memory. I don’t know what Maznik means so I’m calling my pastry M’hanncha as I know that means snake. As a wise playwright once said “a pastry by any other name would taste as sweet” – or something like that 🙂

M’hanncha

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Ingredients

for the filling
4 large granny smith apples, peeled cored and chopped
2 tablespoons orange juice
2 tablespoons water
1 + 1/2 tablespoons caster sugar
1/4 cup sultanas

for the pastry
50g unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled.
8 sheets of filo pastry, prepared according to the instructions on the packet
1/4 cup ground almonds

Method
Bring the apples, orange juice and water to a boil in a saucepan. Reduce heat to medium. Cover and cook for 15 minutes or until the apples have softened. Lightly mash the apples. Stir in the sugar and sultanas. Allow to cool.
Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F.
Lightly grease a 25cm round baking tray.
Work with one sheet of pastry at a time, keeping the remaining sheets covered with a damp tea towel.
Place one sheet of filo pastry on a board with the longest side facing you.
Lightly butter the pastry sheet.
Sprinkle with 1/8th of the almond meal.
Spread 1/8th of the apple mix along the bottom side of the pastry.
Loosely roll up the pastry into a long cigar shape.
Carefully roll into a coil shape and place in the centre of the prepared baking tray.
For each of the remaining sheets roll as above and continue the coil from where the previous sheet finished.
Brush with melted butter.
Bake for 25 – 35 minutes or until browned.

You need approximately 2 cups of apple sauce.
This is a rustic pastry so don’t worry if it cracks in sections.

An Ode To Hades

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As I walked my dogs early Sunday morning, they raced to a cluster of white speckled weeds. I pulled them away thinking the white speckles were weed killer. But as I took a closer look I saw something I hadn’t seen in a while – frost. I stared at the icy weeds and thought about the last time I had been out this early in the morning and the last time I had felt this cold. It’s been a while! This July has been one of the coldest in Melbourne for quite a few years. What better way to celebrate the cold then with an icy morning walk followed by a trip to the country to visit the even colder town of Daylesford.

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After enjoying a warming coffee and a visit to the Daylesford market we set off to the Convent Gallery for scones and art. The former convent is now an art gallery with a cafe, bar and souvenir shop. I loved seeing the artworks juxtaposed against the backdrop of catholic iconography – especially the nudes. It was a beautiful blend of history, religion and modern art. The scones were great too. I washed them down with a Pimms and lemonade garnished with fruit grown in the convent gardens.

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We ended our trip to Daylesford with a visit to Lavandula, a Swiss Italian Farm. There were so many things to enjoy here but one thing grabbed my attention.
Two pomegranates, way past their use by date, posed decoratively in front of an old lantern on a rustic table. Every time I see pomegranates I think of Hades and Persephone, and the sweet fruit that “trapped” the even sweeter Goddess in the Underworld. I thought the paired, rotted fruit were a beautiful and poignant symbol of the God and Goddess, reliving the cycle of the seasons; from birth to death, from spring to winter. Persephone “escapes” every spring but for now she is underground and we are in the midst of a cold, harsh winter. It made me smile. It reminded me that spring is just around the corner.

IMG_2187Spring heralds the return of Persephone, the return of warmth, light and life, and the return of many creatures dwelling in the Underworld. I’m not looking forward to the return of some of those creatures! But for now, like Persephone, I will embrace the bitter cold while it lasts and enjoy the fruit of the Underworld in all its forms. Could the Lord of the Underworld tempt you with these deadly white treats?

Persephone’s Death By White Chocolate and Pomegranate Clusters

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Ingredients
200g white chocolate, broken into small pieces
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds

Method
Line a mini cupcake tray with mini cupcake cases.
Fill a saucepan about one-third full with water and bring to a gentle simmer. Set a heatproof-bowl over the saucepan, making sure the water does not touch the bottom of the bowl. Add the white chocolate and slowly melt, being careful not to burn the chocolate. Remove from the heat. Gently stir in the pomegranate seeds until just combined.
Dollop into prepared cases and refrigerate until firm.
Bring the chocolates to room temperature before serving.