IN the next week, in the lead up to Australia Day, debate will again rage like a summer bush fire over what it means to be Australian. This year I will be up in Bali (which some could argue is another state of Australia these days) and won’t be here to watch how the oi, oi, awful arguments unfold. But before I leave, I wanted to share a secret part of my Australia. The one that is multicultural, tolerant, colourful and compassionate.
About every six weeks, I head 20 minutes west of Brisbane to Inala, a low socio-economic suburb, which has become home to so many migrants. People just like my Great, Great Grandfather, who boarded boats on treacherous journeys simply seeking a better life. The population here is largely Vietnamese and I go there to buy the delicious Vietnamese coffee I first discovered in Saigon many years ago.
This coffee is not bitter, as the beans are roasted in butter. And every time I walk into the grocery store there, the young woman who shouts rapid-fire greetings in Vietnamese to her customers, turns to me and in the most Aussie of accents and says: “Have you found a bloke yet?”. We both laugh and shrug our shoulders and it’s as simple as that.
On my wanderings there, I also pick up a Vietnamese pork roll, simple and salacious on a white bun, topped with fresh coriander and where the shop owner smiles at me and asks every time: “You want chilli?”, seemingly trying to make sense of what I’m doing there. The men outside sip their Vietnamese coffee the traditional way, with sickly sweet condensed milk, while they play a mean game of mahjong, barely giving me a second glance.
Across the forecourt, Muslim women cradle their babies, gossip in their native tongue and smile shyly at me. I bump into a monk buying green Asian vegetables. There’s Sudanese people as dark as the blackest night. All big white smiles and colourful short-sleeved shirts. There’s not too many of us white fellas here. And certainly no tourists. Just people going about their every day business.
So when I’m there I like to pause. Look up at our big sky country, and thank the stars for my good fortune that I can call myself Australian. One day I hope all Australians can be a little like the Vietnamese coffee I so adore. Not bitter, just roasted in the buttery goodness of this land we call Down Under. That’s my secret Australia. What’s yours?
ROBERTA Flack is killing me softly and Elton John keeps warning me not to go breaking his heart, but when you’re chopping up morel mushrooms at $1300 a kilogram, these things seem somewhat insignificant. It’s only when Tina Turner reminds me I’m simply the best, that things start to take shape. It’s a sultry summer afternoon on the Gold Coast and I find myself in the most saucy of scenarios: an aphrodisiac cooking course at the Sofitel, Broadbeach. Under the tutelage of the hotel’s Room 81 Executive Chef Bill Magno I am adding my own karma sutra slant on six dishes, which the restaurant will be recreating for guests on Valentine’s Day as part of a raunchy package.
The fact I seem to be romantically challenged is not lost on me. However the signs for this stay are good. There’s a painting hanging in the foyer by an artist called John Romeo, but before I can ponder his whereabouts, I am whisked to my 21st floor room overlooking the ocean, and in which awaits a cold bottle of French champagne. But this is no time to drink, at least until I get to the restaurant, where bottles and bottles of the fine French fizzy await me, plus a couple of big knives. A combination at home which has often found me in considerable trouble.
The menu, which will be replicated on February 14, starts out with a freshly shucked cupid oyster with a veuve cliquot champagne granite. We all know oysters are an aphrodisiac, but did you realise this is because they are high in zinc, which raises sperm and testosterone production, thus increasing libido? Clearly not my libido, I think as I try to shuck one of the slippery suckers with a sharp knife, while not shredding any major appendages.
The oyster is followed by a shaved jamon iberico with figs and almonds with a lemon marmalade dressing. Figs, it turns out, are a synonym in erotic literature for female sexual organs and so revered by the ancient Greeks when it came to fertility, they were more precious than gold. Almonds are also regarded as fertility symbols and those with almond-shaped eyes are considered sexy. This, I reflect, could be my problem. I don’t have almond-shaped eyes.
Next up are the seared nova scotian scallops, cauliflower silk, asparagus and morel mushrooms with a truffle vinaigrette. Given I spent a good hour peeling the asparagus, including some rather fancy white sprigs from Peru, I find it imperative to learn that this vegetable is said to stir up lust in men and women. I don’t know about lust but I have a blister on my thumb from all the peeling. Curiously, it is said to boost histamine production which is necessary to reach orgasm in both sexes. I mean, the peeling was fun, but it wasn’t THAT fun.
Main meal, if there is such a thing in a six-course production, is a lamb loin, crispy lamb breast terrine, broad beans, sunchoke puree, pommes fondant and anise jus. The sweet liquorice flavour of aniseed was believed by both the ancient Romans and Greeks to strengthen female sexual arousal. Now, we’re getting somewhere.
Vanilla and honey panacotta form the first dessert (yes, there’s multiple deserts on this menu), with a vanilla pod considered a mild nerve stimulant which can enhance sexual sensation. Honey, on the other hand, was once known as Aphrodite’s nectar and has long been associated with romance. I make a mental note to stop at the local beehive on the way home.
The night is not complete with an erect cherry soufflé, chocolate sauce and coconut sorbet. And we all know that chocolate is not only a vital food group but increases your body’s endorphin and serotonin levels. We finish dinner with tea, coffee and heart-shaped macaroons, all innuendo and any remaining cooking skills exhausted.
I head back to my room ready to retire my chef’s hat and apron but the hotel has other ideas in store for me. My rather enormous bed is covered in rose petals in the shape of a love heart. I’ve had one or two champagnes, so at first I think I’ve mistakenly entered someone else’s room. But I carefully slip myself under the doona – not unlike one would a slice a cheese into an already packed sandwich – and fall asleep laughing myself silly at cupid and his crooked bow. The next morning, with rose petals scattered all over the bed, the floor and a couple stuck to my face, and as I consider how I’m going to explain this carnage to the housekeeper, I reflect on life and love. My eye catches the bottom of the Valentine’s Day menu beside my bed, upon which is inscribed the words: “magnez bien, riez souvent, aimez beaucoup”. Which translated means: “eat well, laugh often, love much.” And so while I wait for cupid to get his damn arrow straight, this is what I plan to do.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of Sofitel Broadbeach. To book this six-course feast, which includes a wine package of Australian, New Zealand and French varietals, priced at $225 per person; or the Deluxe Valentine’s Room package for $795 per couple, which includes an overnight stay and breakfast as well as the six-course dinner, go to http://www.sofitelgoldcoast.com.au
OUT on the patio we sit, and the humidity we breathe. 1980s Aussie rock band GANGgajang is on stage, stating the obvious on a scorching summer day, which feels like Satan himself has tossed a hot blanket over the entire Woodford Festival site. There is no respite from this cauldron so I have two choices, to complain (which strangely doesn’t make it any cooler) or, as GANGgajang states, laugh and think…this is Australia.
Under the big canvas of the Blue Lotus tent, Mary-Lou Stephens – author of Sex, Drugs and Meditation – has lured me in with her talk entitled “Change Your Life Without Doing Anything”. It’s an enticing concept, borne from Stephens’ tortured childhood and time spent in silent meditation retreats.
“I changed my life, saved my job and found a husband through meditation,” she tells the sweltering crowd. But, we quickly learn, it’s not as simple as all that.
“I grew up in a charismatic, Christian family. I was told at the age of eight by my mother that I was a prophet, a healer. My mother was desperate for me to be special in some way,” Stephen says.
“I developed a lot of addictions and had a childhood described as being akin to growing up in an alcoholic household. I never knew what to expect when I came home. I knew my family was different to everyone else’s family and I was embarrassed to bring my friends home to this.
“There is an urban myth that the youngest child is spoilt. But by the time your parents get around to you they are tired. They don’t care what you do. I grew up a victim of gross neglect. I grew up wild and feral, stealing money and food.”
So damaging was her childhood, that one of Stephens’ brothers died from alcoholism and two of her sisters nearly died from anorexia. And while she went on to have a successful career with the ABC, even that was not without its anxieties – at one point she was using heroin and speed just to get up in the morning. But through meditation she not only conquered this, but went on to meet the man she would marry.
“I had been very bad at relationships. I had been like a frightened animal. I just felt so trapped and vulnerable,” she says.
“But I discovered there is a thin membrane between the conscious and subconscious. When we meditate we drop into a different place, into that place which really drives us.
“Even the most hideous thing, the most painful thing, will eventually change.”
Change, it emerges, becomes my personal theme for this year’s Woodford Festival. Even Australian musician Gotye has gone back to his roots and is performing as somebody that we used to know, with his original band – The Basics. Later that day I stumble across The Lettering House, Woodford’s first post office. Here you can send real letters, strung on a washing line with pegs, but also leave a random note to a stranger. I find this concept too seductive to resist and hence pen a note which simply says: “To the man of my dreams. Please find me…”
The next day I happen across the postie on her push bike. She looks so cool amid the heat I ask to take her photo. There’s no letter for me, but an unexpected compliment after the final click of my shutter. “You have the cutest smile,” she says, before riding off. That one kind comment from a complete stranger makes me sparkle all day. In return, I attract the most interesting strangers and companions along my Woodford wonderings.
I’m waiting for my breakfast, a tantalising Turkish Gozleme – pastry filled with spinach, cheese and mushrooms – when I encounter a Turkish/Australian woman. Bilge, 34, was born in Istanbul but moved to Australia in 2007 to learn English and is performing in the Fokloricka tent at the festival.
“Have you been to Turkey?” she asks as we wait for the soupy Turkish coffee to boil.
“Yes,” I offer. And in the manner in which many foreigners try to connect to Australians by mentioning a well-known Aussie, I add that I have been to Gallipoli and was deeply touched by former Turkish leader Ataturk.
Quite unexpectedly, fat, salty, serious tears fill Bilge’s eyes.
“I get very emotional about Ataturk,” she smiles through her tears, “he was such a great leader.”
“They say once every 100 years in the world comes along a leader who is a true leader. Ataturk is that man.
“He believed in women and allowed us to work and lose the veil.”
I stay struck by this simple, yet powerful connection I have with Bilge, and memories of this great leader who believed in positive change, for the rest of the day. Down in the Greenhouse, on a subject called Essays From Contemporary Australia, author Ben Law talks about racism, his writer sister Michelle Law about sexism, indigenous curator Bruce McLean about Aboriginality, and feminist Clementine Ford about mental illness. Again big change, it emerges, needs to happen in this country. The issues are sticky, just like the Woodford weather.
Before I depart Woodford, I have one more task I wish to achieve. I visit Woodford’s acclaimed clairvoyant. She’s so popular that I sit outside her tent in the shade for an hour, watching the colourful parade of festival goers saunter past me. Interestingly, at the very moment I’m about to enter her tent, my ex-husband walks past me, looks at me, looks at the tent, pauses as if he’s about to say something, before moving on. I enter the tent feeling sick and rattled. But we read my cards and they are good news and more importantly, accurate. At the end of the reading, the clairvoyant asks me whether I have any questions.
“I have two,” I say, before relaying the ex-husband incident as I entered the tent.
“That’s just your past, walking past you,” she says.
“Is it finally over?” I ask.
“Yes. And now you need to really learn to be comfortable in your own skin, and then you will meet someone. He is out there but you need to change a few things,” she says, answering my predictable second question.
And so, this year, that’s what I aim to do. Simply sit with myself. Out on the patio. Breathe in the humidity. And laugh and think.
The Global Goddess was a guest of the Woodford Festival. For more information on this year’s event, please visit http://www.woodfordfolkfestival.com