Christmas trifle in the park

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Josh Thomas

If you haven’t caught up with Please Like Me, don’t start with “Christmas trifle”. But, as a fan, you would have marvelled at the season’s finale – fewer laughs, but an artistic triumph.

Episodes have been built around a food or drink, so that Series 1 started with “Rhubarb and custard”, and, after running through such items as “French toast” and “Skinny latte”, we  recently reached the especially brilliant “Coq au vin”, in which the household planned to kill and eat Adele, whose unanticipated crowing was waking the district.

For the Series 3 ending, the writer-star Josh Thomas told the sitcom’s

characters some home truths about their characters, snatched the bowl of Christmas trifle from the table, and ate it alone with his dog on a park bench.

Josh’s parents, partners and house-companions are quite likeable, usually, but Christmas typically brings out the worst in everyone … I get grumpier than ever.

Not that I should be overly blamed because, just this year, in the space of a few days, I heard about two, separate, extended families whose tensions became so overwhelming that members were opting out of the Christmas gatherings entirely, while a third complainer spoke of the opposite problem, being unilaterally informed that this year was the turn of the partner’s family.

On top of family difficulties, add the manufactured stress of gift-giving … frenzied shopping … increased traffic … haphazard parties … interrupted routines … pretend snow  … inappropriate cooking … and I can think of more. More usefully, I can suggest a solution.

 

Apparently, one strategy is to think of the family as someone else’s: they then seem merely eccentric, rather than disturbed. That might reduce family but not retail stress.

My better suggestion is a quiet champagne on Christmas night. That’s with no more than one or two other people, sitting on a park bench with a bit to eat. With this anti-party to look forward to, the whole season can prove less rigorous than anticipated.

I adopted the anti-party ritual about 30 years ago, waiting in Wellington Square in North Adelaide for the Christmas tree lights to turn on every 25th, and it has usually seemed to work, so that I have often enjoyed the season almost as much as professed enthusiasts.

Nigella’s Christmas trifle

The Kiwi aesthetic, everything including the kitchen sink

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Unsuccessful NZ flag contenders – featuring sheep and hokey-pokey ice cream

AN EXCEPTIONALLY GOOD meal stimulates not just conversation, but thought. The recent dinner for the Wellington Symposium of Gastronomy at Hillside Kitchen and Cellar encouraged reflections on the distinctive, at least to an outsider, Kiwi aesthetic.

Admittedly, I’m only a partial outsider, having lived in Wellington from mid-2000 to the end of 2007, but that provided preliminary data for ruminations on the notable contrasts, culturally, with Australia.

Hillside is a tiny café-restaurant in Thorndon, near the centre of the New Zealand capital. It runs from breakfast until dinner, and was chosen for the symposium by Duncan Galletly, who had previously rated the place:

interesting, brave, cerebral and simply delicious. On Saturday we did a mr creosote and ordered “one of everything please” – asking for wine “that was interesting”.
Of twelve plates all except one, the bluenose, were brilliant and the fish was still good by any standards… [etc]

For confirmation of the “cerebral” quality, check out chef Asher Boote’s comments on Hillside’s website. He exposes himself every meal, but for a reason:

The one true reward in this profession is not the pay (for this is always crap), it’s being a facilitator of a good time, creating a reason for people to sit down, stop for a bit and be with each other

The symposium menu narrowed down to: snacks; sourdough, cultured butter; vegetables, marrow; sea egg; wild sheep, garlic, greens; elder, pine, rosemary; treats. And the courses got progressively better.

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I would happily have had more of the delicious marrow dip with raw vegetables, all placed in a bone, split length-wise. Real-seeming seaweed, sea urchin and other sea creatures arrived under a halved, boiled egg.

Next was the “wild sheep”, cooked sous-vide, pulled and pressed into a block. One person meanly described it as looking like “Spam”.

The plate of elderflowers, crunchy bits and rosemary cream “quenelle” was perfect, in anyone’s language … likewise, the final, tiny “treats” of mint marshmallow, strawberry meringue and mascarpone fudge proved yet again that this kitchen can cook.

But back to the block of “wild sheep”. Along with the split bone and “sea egg”, it aroused contemplation about the distinctive New Zealand style.

Embedded image permalinkThe Kiwi aesthetic is so ever-present that locals hardly notice. The numerous elements go beyond the prevalent black, reflecting the dark beaches and rocky outcrops, and the old-fashioned textures of wool and wood, and, importantly, permit flashes of brightness.

The boast of “Kiwi ingenuity” is said to involve “number 8 wire” – the softer, thicker, fencing gauge with which a bloke could mend anything. That’s the sheep farmer, who supported founding Calvinists in eschewing flashiness or pretension. The resulting non-style mixes with traditional, Pacific islander motifs and tattoos. The ever-present driftwood contributes randomness, while native rimu provides smooth, warm timber surfaces.

The drabness is comforting, and makes a backdrop for subtlety, along with drollery. Think farmer Fred Dagg (comedian John Clark), who in the 1970s always responded to a knock, “That’ll be the door.” More recently, the Flight of the Conchords took a similarly glum gleam into the wider world.

The Kiwi aesthetic shows in fashion, or perhaps avoidance thereof. Not only the hoodies, clothing is deliberately dressed down, although designers aim for well-made comfort. In any case, undue devotion to grooming would soon become windswept. Yet all that enables unapologetic touches of whimsy. Here in Wellington, the twist of a hem, flash of garish stocking or the natty dress of post-gothic dandies quickly makes street-wear fascinating enough for Bill Cunningham.

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Red Peak

During our visit, friends received voting papers to select a new national flag.  We are all now run by merchant bankers (think Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and NSW Premier Mike Baird), and everyone seemed so angry at theirs (Prime Minister John Key) that they would rather keep the present flag, with no fewer than four Christian crosses, than let his campaign succeed. The four logos on the shortlist were so unloved that they had, belatedly, to be supplemented by “Red Peak”. It encapsulates the aesthetic, albeit unbalanced, so that the joy of the red volcano and white mountain push the grim black into a corner.

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Wellington kitchen sink

I’m probably the first visitor to New Zealand to have photographed nothing but a kitchen sink. I snapped it as the best example of tonal-depressiveness-with-moments-of-brilliance. For many decades domestic  benchtops were custom-made in stainless steel with the sink or sinks set in, sensible, sturdy and easy to clean. They look beautiful, set against rimu woodwork. More than that, however, with corners and splashbacks fitted to even the oddest room, they lend themselves to quirkiness. Unlike hard, polished white Caesarstone, the grey patina could not be more homely.Embedded image permalink

Such cultural references were made by the central dishes at Hillside the other night. While I heard secondhand that a huddle of senior restaurant reviewers grumbled a bit about the meal, I suspect they missed an aesthetic more noticeable to the outsider. The Kiwi aesthetic – exemplified by the decorated bone, the slices of underwater life in a dark pool of broth, and the equally grey slab of sheep, hidden amid the green.

As fate would have it, a few days later, artist and cabinet-maker Duncan Sargent told me about his sculpture at Lower Hutt. It’s a properly engineered geodesic dome with a timber plank through it. The Hillside meat dish was much the same – intricate cooking stuck through with a sheep block.

Wellington artist Duncan Sargent, left, and Allan Brown of Lower Hutt's E Tu Awakairangi Sculpture Trust, with Sargent's work Untie This, which is sited along a walkway by Waiwehtu Stream.

 

 

Comedians at dinner, or, Why I love Brydon, Coogan (and Winterbottom’s) Trip and Trip to Italy

A FRIEND SAW THE MOVIE version of the Trip to Italy, together with some of Sydney’s top Italian restaurateurs, and all were disappointed. New Yorker reviewer David Denby joined an audience “apparently expecting a beach-and-mountain travelogue. For a hundred and ten minutes, watching some of the funniest comedy in years, they maintained a puzzled silence.” Not everyone loves The Trip (2010) and The Trip to Italy (2014), so I promised over dinner the other night to explain my delight.

These are the adventures of comedians Rob Brydon (Welsh) and Steve Coogan (northern English), as they chat in the car during a scenic drive, compete in mimicking movie stars over a restaurant meal, pose for a snap in front of a plaque for a poet whose lines they recite, get shown to their hotel room by a young woman, sometimes have a brief encounter, and talk on the phone to a partner, child or agent or themselves in a mirror.

Without having seen the movies, I suspect the six-part series, upon which the movies are based, are preferable not only because they are longer but also because, accented with music, the same ritual every episode lends a melancholy predictability. dark-knight-rises-characters-hilariously-impersonated-by-steve-coogan-and-rob-brydon

My wife happily tolerates my enthusiasm, but wonders if our divergent opinions might invite gender analysis. True, David Denby of the New Yorker asserts: “Both movies, in fact, are about the impossibility—and the necessity—of male friendship.” However definitive that might sound, he also applauds several other basic themes. The men reveal their attraction to younger women – receptionists or at a nearby cafe table – and agree that glances are now not so usually reciprocated. I also wonder whether two female comedians might yet be allowed to retain the same dignity, while being so frequently silly, and mean, but will wisely leave further such conjectures to others.

Both series show some of the world’s loveliest scenery (the Lakes District and nearby parts of England, and the west coast of Italy), finest restaurant food and smartest comic impersonations (Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Woody Allen and Hugh Grant being ones I recognise), but the series are not particularly about any of these, nor quotations from Wordsworth and Coleridge in England and Byron and Shelley in Italy, nor celebrations of the craft of comedy, nor conversations about fading professional careers, about aging and death. Amalgamating such components, the Trips are classics of apparent simplicity, exemplified by the addictive rhythm.

The viewer accepts immediately that Brydon and Coogan play clever caricatures of themselves (Coogan more on top – including longer hair – in the first series, and Brydon winning in the second), and that they are not really reviewing the restaurants for the Observer, but a third, highly creative force is also hiding behind them. Using the same actors, director Michael Winterbottom developed some of the same techniques in Tristram Shandy: A cock and bull story (2005), and he had already done a road movie, In This World (2002), depicting the harrowing “smuggling” of two Afghan refugees from Pakistan across the Middle East and Europe to Britain.

Presumably also contributing to the minimal plots, Winterbottom has spent much of his adult life making movies far from home, probably getting used to luxurious accommodation, so that his former wife, Sabrina Broadbent, wrote Descent: An irresistible tragicomedy of everyday life (2004) about a movie director, always away, having affairs with his female actors. The shows revel in ambiguity, with the glamour constantly subverted. The beautiful food, places and people are haunted by insults and interruptions, quarrels about driving, agents sounding hopeful, relationship troubles, and time passing. As Denby reports: “Both films pursue the high and the low: a complicated deep-running sadness courses through the cynical, sybaritic adventures.” Winterbottom has captured the Nigella Lawson lesson – behind every façade lies pain (the “domestic goddess” had everything, including a nasty, public split with wealthy advertising entrepreneur husband Charles Saatchi).

A dear friend used to finish her emails with the tagline: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle”, probably the invention of Scottish pastor, Rev. John Watson (1850-1907). The shows’ downers might seem casual and never worse than hit-and-miss communication, rivalry, nagging doubts and work pressures, but time is always fleeing. The implicit lesson is: “Eat, drink and be merry, … ” and I plan to write further in defence of that philosophy. For the moment, my argument is that the Trips witness the fundamental distinction between food and meals, and, at the risk of repetition, meals matter. Two or three brief shots from each kitchen show the cooks paying considerably more attention to the dishes than the two diners ever do. It is as if to say that celebrity chefs and photogenic plates have been accorded too much prominence of late.

As Brillat-Savarin wrote, table-pleasure depends not on fancy fare, but on four essentials: at least adequate setting, food and drink, companionship, and time. I’ll expand on this important point on another occasion, even if Brillat-Savarin gave two, differing lists of the four necessities (reconciled here). Nevertheless, Winterbottom has won me over by making the food and wine plainly important, but only one part of the picture. He has wondrously illustrated the peaks of all four necessary elements – glorious settings, fine comestibles, exceedingly witty and caring conversations, and apparently (only apparently) all the time in the world.