Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ode to Corrugated Iron & Camembert

Cheddar cheese brought me to Australia (well, that and tennis tournaments, wonderful friends, warm weather, and great food & wine), but I want to put it aside for this blog entry, and this one only, to pay homage to something truly Australian: corrugated iron.

In case you are not familiar with corrugated galvanized iron, it's a lightweight but durable building material that can be used cheaply by semi-skilled workers in rural and developing areas. Its uses are numerous, and it's the Australians, since the 1840s, who have coaxed the most out of it. Corrugated iron is such a part of the fabric of Australian living, even in urban areas where sheets of it are laid as roofing, that the cartoonist Michael Leunig suggested that it be adopted as the flag of Australia (see above).

On my visits to Australia I've seen corrugated iron function as the structure of whole buildings, including fancy & innovative cellar doors (the tasting rooms of vineyards) and Italian restaurants. Wille, Lucy's husband, has fabricated auxiliary housing units on his farm in the Southern Highlands (New South Wales) with it, one for his daughter and one for guests. It's also good for hen houses and dog houses and potting sheds and tool sheds. Willie uses upright circular containers made of corrugated iron to store rainwater. On their side these containers shield firewood from the occasional rain. Needless to say, every building on Willie and Lucy's property has roofing made from corrugated iron.
It might not be the classiest of building materials, but it's one of the most functional and it underscores the pioneering self-sufficiency of Australians, at least the ones who don't live in cities. And in this sparsely populated country it doesn't take long to get out of the cities! Australians know how to make and fix things, a skill I don't come across as frequently in the U.S., and one I wish I had. While visiting Nina on the South Coast of New South Wales, Neville, the elderly Australian who owns the property on which she lives, busies himself all day with projects. He builds and fixes furniture, and in the past built a mediation hut in the bush for his now-deceased wife and the tree-house like building in which Nina lives. He originally designed it for his daughter so that she would have a quiet place of her own while she was at university. His latest project was building a whole pizza oven from scratch! Someone he knows in Adelaide is handmaking tools for his oven so he can pull out pizzas without burning his arms. So cool and impressive (even if it hasn't been made with any corrugated iron)!
Lucy, who herself is quite skilled at making things (she was a prop designer), is gunning for self-sufficiency in the Australian bush. With Willie's skillful help and with the monetary donations from her wedding over two years ago, she has made an enormous kitchen garden, with beetroot, celery root, lettuces, beans, fruit trees, squashes, etc. She was recently given a calf, which, although it's a breed for beef, she hopes, she hopes will supply milk for cheese and butter. While I was visiting, Lucy devoted a whole day to making two Camembert cheeses with unhomogenized milk bought from the supermarket, so she can prefect her cheesemaking skills by the time her calf provides milk. She is even hoping one day to make Cheddar, but this is more complicated because you need a cheese press and a cool place to store the cheese--not easy to come by in Australia. But knowing how innovative Aussies are, even ones who, like Lucy, immigrated there not so long ago, I bet she'll find a way.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cheddar Down Under

There it was, in the place I least suspected it, a big block of tasty cheese in Nina's mom's fridge.

Just as Foster's is Australian for beer (or so their adverts tell us; you don't see Foster's anywhere in Australia, mate), tasty is Australian for Cheddar. I have no idea how this name came about, but English friends in Australia joke that tasty is anything but.

I'll give you two reasons why I was surprised to see an unopened hunk of Cheddar in Mrs. Kourea's fridge. First, I had pretty much abandoned my hunt for Cheddar on this trip to Australia. The sun and surf have seduced me off its trail, and on top of that, I was beginning to accept that Cheddar isn't the cheese of Australia, like I had thought it was; feta, halloumi, and ricotta are. As a result, I wasn't looking out much for it anymore. Second, Nina's family is Cypriot. As I opened the fridge in their newly remodeled kitchen in residential Sydney, I wasn't thinking Cheddar. I was just looking for a spot to put the bottle of juice I had taken with me from my flight from Brisbane that morning. If I was thinking cheese at all, it was the Greek cheeses listed above.

What was it doing in her fridge, front and center? I had to ask Mrs. Kourea. She laughed, not at my question, but at my calling her block of tasty big. "You call that big?" You should have seen the kilo package I had at the holidays!" Tasty is no stranger to her Greek fridge.

"Greek cheeses are strong, so tasty is good when you want something else. It's good with fruit, or with marmelade on toast or with whatever. Also, my granddaughter is on a special diet and needs to eat lots of dairy, so we grate it into as many dishes as possible.

"When I make anything savory with cheese, I usually use it, like in quiches. When I make a spinach quiche, I always use Cheddar. And I use it in Greek dishes, too, along with halloumi. I grate a whole lot of it at once and store it in the freezer so it doesn't go moldy."

There were several other cheeses in the fridge, mostly Greek. On a saucer with three cheeses, covered with a paper towel and saran wrap: Bega's Strong and Bitey, a Camembert-style cheese from Tasmania, and halloumi. To me, that's Australia on a plate: the English cheese pointing to its colonial origins; the Greek cheese highlighting the strong culinary influence of its immigrants; and the Camembert showing that most countries think French when they think cheese.

That block of tasty has put me back on track. Well, not completely. I did go to the beach today, at Austinmer on the South Coast of New South Wales, to escape the heat and then had a surfing lesson at Thirroul, two beaches to the south. At least I'm closer to it than I was two weeks ago!