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“When the leaves burn, summer ends”
– Buffalo Tom, 1994

Leaves are falling around Canberra, a reminder that all things, good or otherwise, must come to an end.

Strange things were afoot in Dickson last Monday night.

Walking from the autoteller next to Woolies around to Canberra’s mini-SouthEastAsiaTown to meet the Bald Man for a cheap & cheerful dinner, the first thing I noticed was that MacDonalds was shut. More precisely, I noticed dozens of bewildered would-be customers loitering about, peering through the windows at the deserted dining room, wondering why a 24-hour junk joint would be closed.

Not to worry; the notice on the door said it was just a temporary closure for Drive-Thru renovations. Tough luck loiterers, wog food for you then.


Just down the street there was an almighty racket. Outside the Dickson Tradies, another era was passing under big spotlights, to the sounds of shouting workers and the straining of a giant red crane.

The old tram, long a feature of the Tradies’ dining room, was being extracted from a maw knocked into the club wall.

For years children climbed over its wooden seats and swung from its lights while their parents tucked into the schnitzel with salad, chips and a beer, grateful for a Friday night break.

Early into our Berra residency, Bald Man and I had dinner in that very tram. The steak was quite forgettable, but as I stood in the street last Monday with a gathering crowd of locals, I was glad to have spent that $12. Never guessed I could say I’d experienced a special bit of suburban Berra.

It’s ANZAC Day this Sunday. According to local wisdom, the day to turn on your heater. In my view, most locals must be hypocrites; everyone I know turned their heater about two weeks ago with the first light frost. But this week just gone has been a glorious balmy autumn, the kind of thing that makes living inland attractive. The rain forecast for ANZAC Day will bring a smart end to that.

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Be running up that road,
Be running up that hill,
With no problems…
Kate Bush, 1985

 

Now, where was I?

Oh yes. The hole that is winter, mid-year, mid-contract, mid-life terror-inertia, just opened up and swallowed me whole a little while ago. It was either write rubbish… or take a short break. So we ran away to a foreign land for a few weeks, then came home and I turned my brain off and slept in for a few more weeks, and now here we are and it’s spring.

The Berra seems determined to put on a proper spring, too, showering us with warm days and thunderstorms, lush overgrown lawns, rogue oak seedlings infesting naturestrips and battalions of magpies. 2009 is a great deal more fecund than last year.

Melbourne Cup Day, marked in the Berra as the universally reviled Family & Community Day public holiday (it’s in fact a day when families and the rest of the community just go down-the-coast) saw the Bald Man and me achieve a little local milestone: we finally climbed Mount Ainslie.

If you’re local, you won’t be fooled by the disingenuous use of “climb”. It’s actually a brisk walk up a hill that’s 842m high. Some people reputedly jog to the summit each morning, using the paved track from the rear of the War Memorial. But we started round the back end at the site of the old tip in North Ainslie, went up the fire trail, came down the more usual path and then walked back around to our starting point.

On the way up there were regular pauses because it was pretty warm, and steep. But on the way down the path was so tame, I actually jogged for short periods, maybe up to a km total. That’s the fastest I’ve moved my legs (and fat ol’ arse) in several years, so you’ll forgive me for being so pleased with myself over such a little thing.

The other milestone from this period is a d’ohmestic goddess one. You may have noticed that the pizza reviews have petered out; the taste tests and reviews were fun at first, but the exercise quickly became depressing. Thanks for your suggestions, but after a passable but pricey pizza at Il Covo, one average and two rubbish pizzas at Firestone, and a truly horrible experience at Pizza Arte*, I’ve given up and started to make my own.

A domestic oven and little kitchen notwithstanding, after about five attempts I’m making headway. Less is truly more with toppings – I recommend seasonal vegetable matter and smallgoods sourced from from the EPIC Farmers Market or your own garden.

But the base is definitely the key. I’m now working from a very old recipe that comes from a Good Weekend about a hundred years ago that I tore out, tucked away and fortuitously found again. Like toppings, less is probably more – this ace base uses little more than flour, olive oil and yeast. It works better now after a little modification, a result of trial and error. If you’re interested, the recipe’s on the other, sporadically updated blog i made you this. If you try it, give yourself at least three goes to get a feel for the dough (so to speak) – and let me know how it goes.

* I think we got Pizza Arte on a bad day – Victorians now call that day Black Saturday, and it felt at least 60 degrees in their kitchen – but really, the pizza was terrible. Burned and undercooked patches on one pizza, overcooked base and dry toppings that just fell off the other one. I don’t have words to describe how disgusting it was.

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These days turned out nothing like I had planned.
– Powderfinger, 2000

What a strange couple of weeks it’s been. Work took me to Victoria to help with bushfire coverage; though I stayed office-bound, the hours were long and weird, colleagues worn out and worn down, and smoke permeated even the Southbank studios. Outside visibility was low and everyone looked serious. (Readers of The Hobart Chronicles may remember that the smell of bushfire makes me twitchy. I left Melbourne with a full-blown coffee dependancy re-established, my caffeine free weeks a distant memory.)

Then just days later, attending to the outlaws took me to northeastern NSW where flooodwaters were receding; at the Bald Man’s mother’s property she’d had 25 inches in 10 days, exceeding all known records for the area, and a low-lying bridge was temporarily impassable. It was hot and swampy.

And here in The Berra? Dry, dry, dry. The gardens that started January so lush are now desiccated. Trees look like they’re turning early for autumn, but in fact the leaves are just dying. Miss Penny, visiting from Tamworse last weekend, was a bit taken aback by the dry landscape, but I’m pleased to say she enjoyed her stay having found The Berra very much to her liking. Sunday also happened to be my birthday. With each passing birthday, I seem to care about my age less, which is good; but I also seem to care about everything else a little less, too. Perhaps it’s smart not to look at the detail of one’s life too closely at times like these.

Anyway, The Berra offers many fine distractions, and we sampled a few on the weekend. Sunday was the annual open day for Government House at Yarralumla, and so early on we dropped in. I had a look at the work OB, and the Marketing guru snuck off and quietly organised for us to jump the queue of people waiting to walk through the grand old residence. Somehow this morphed into a personal tour by one of the senior staff for Miss Penny, the Bald Man and me through some of the open and not-so-open areas, like the kitchen and flower-arranging room (yes there is one of these). Built in the 1830s, it’s remarkable how the House relates to all the contemporary landmarks, including Lake Burley Griffin and the Telstra tower, none of which existed when the drawing rooms with the fine bay windows were installed. Now in its 18th decade, the house has a gentle, genteel atmosphere even when filled with hundreds of curious Berrans peering over the red ropes at the furniture.

Our guide, having served under several G-Gs, remembered some fascinating moments, a boon for the Bald Man who is in turn fascinated by the Dismissal. Here was where Whitlam walked in. There was where Fraser stood. Kerr was sitting behind this desk. And so on. We rounded a corner and nearly ran into an older gentleman coming down a flight of stairs. “Oh,” cried our guide, “Hello Mr Bryce!”

We left, awestruck, and discussed the tour while stuffing ourselves at yum cha for lunch. Then about two hours later, having clearly not eaten enough at lunch, we went out for afternoon tea.

Not just any old afternoon tea, but High Tea at the Hyatt, The Berra’s only 5-star establishment. It was very grand indeed. I’m told it’s something of an institution in The Berra, and I can see why. Luxurious surrounds and exquisite petits fours, and you can sit around for hours enjoying first-class people-watching. A group of forty-something women held what looked like a baby shower for one of their number; two dapper young fellows ordered elaborate pink-and-green cocktails. But what was going on at the next table, where a couple of dozen women of varying ages and flash frocks sat adorned with nametags, drinking champagne? We ran through some options: a business meeting; a briefing for Tupperware sales ladies; a church group outing. It finally emerged as some kind of bridal shower, complete with quizzes, little speeches, a sharply pretty Bridezilla and her cut-glass mother. It was a world away from our humble little trio. I thought people only had shoes made to match their dresses for the actual wedding, and then only people for whom the styling of the day may actually be more important than the happily-ever-after. But then, what would I know? It was a joy to watch it all.

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Where: La Capanna, Kingston shops
Open: …?

When: Wednesday 28 January 2009, approx 6.30pm
What was ordered:
1 small foccacia (olive oil & rosemary pizza), $10
1 large pizza, half- delizioza (prosciutto, blue cheese, tomato, mozzarella) half-melanzane (eggplant, tomato, cheese), $23

lacapanna21La Capanna, as recommended by RossG, is a little Italian eatery located on the restaurant side of the Kingston shops. babelfish alleges “la capanna” means “the hut”. I must say I was struck by the decor, which could be described as rustic country bistro fed through an 80s style mangler: greenish stucco walls festooned with gay displays of faux bread loaves, plastic vegies and plastic plaited garlic, topped off with rope covered bottles. It earned points though for being comfortably air-conditioned on what was a very hot evening.

The waiter brought a carafe of chilled water without being asked, and indeed the service was a highlight. Waitstaff were efficient, pleasant, attentive without being in-yer-face, something you don’t take for granted in ONC. The restaurant did a steady trade of take away as we contemplated the menu. Family groups started to arrive for sit-down dinners; it’s obviously a child-friendly restaurant, (which is fine depending on the children – the ones at the next table were okay until the parents let them run about unchecked, making it very difficult for waiters to reach some tables including ours. Grrr.)

La Capanna offers 21 pizzas, a further 6 foccacia (pizza bread with two ingredients, no cheese or tomato base), 10 bruschetta, 16 pasta dishes, 4 fish dishes and 4 salads. That’s a LOT of choice for a small bistro. Thankfully, we were confining ourselves to one part of the menu.

The rosemary foccacia arrived in about 5 minutes, piping hot. The flavours were nice enough, though the Bald Man was quite disappointed at the lack of garlic (curiously the menu offers garlic bread, but no garlic foccacia). The pizza base, so prominent in a minimal item such as this, was of medium thickness, slightly underdone and a bit doughy. It had the texture and sort of fried look you sometimes see in mass-produced chain pizzas, but the flavour was okay.

lacapanna1The main pizza arrived shortly after, again piping hot. It was every man for himself. The toppings looked delicious, and were; I rate the eggplant topping better than that tried at Pizza Gusto. However, about halfway through our guzzling, the pace slowed. We were bogged down by that underdone, doughy, gluggy pizza base. Not just a minor flaw, it proved to be an Achilles’ heel in the dish: a real appetite retardant and unpleasantly fast filler for one’s digestive system.

It was at about this time my ears caught the muzak, and for the first time in my life I was exposed to a rendition of the Chicken Dance song in Italian. Even now, words fail me.

We limped across the finish line and plates cleared, departed bloated into the dusk.

Pros: inside dining with airconditioning plus outdoor tables; great pizza toppings; good service
Cons: that gluggy pizza base will always make us think twice before going again.

TBM comment: Meh.

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Let’s all celebrate and have a good time.
– Kool & the Gang, 1980

Happy Straya Day! Happy Chinky* New Year! Both good reasons for a knees-up, in my humble opinion, and here in the Berra we did it with gusto.

There’s no doubt that in the Berra, the national version of Straya Day is taken very seriously. As a former high level public servant reminded me as we stood in the VIP area of Australia Day Live 2009, we have John Howard to thank for that; he centralised celebrations here in the Berra, putting an end to the motley roadshow that went to a different state capital each year, only to do battle with local celebrations. Since then the Day has gone from strength to strength. But I’m getting the bragging out of order here.

Sunday morning started out by having to regretfully decline an opportunity to tear down 20km of fire trail on a mountain bike in 35 degrees. I’m reliably told by the Bald Man that the event host’s description of it as ‘an easy ride’ was a gross exaggeration. Since the host, a very experienced rider, fell off his bike twice (very heavily) I’m glad I said no; I’d doubtless have spread myself across the scenery.

Instead I primped and preened to make myself presentable for an Australia Day luncheon hosted by the Governor General at Government House, Yarralumla. The luncheon was in honour of the state finalists in the 4 Australia Day Awards categories and their partners; since I was neither, I gather I was there to help with the honouring. In all seriousness, that wasn’t hard. Without exception, each of the finalists was remarkable in their (often multiple) fields of endeavour. It’s a joy to see such people recognised, so I was glad to spend time with them.

gussied-up jam sponge - our national cake for our national day

gussied-up jam sponge - our national cake for our national day

Naturally I also spent time honouring the buffet. The food was, well, worthy of a head of state, in both quality (outstanding) and quantity (lavish). It ensured the patrons (both the honourable and the hangers-on) had their mouths stuffed and could therefore listen to the speeches in silence. Her Excellency the G-G was gracious, and newly appointed chair of the Australia Day Council Adam Gilchrist was well-spoken and amusingly self-deprecating. Both were mercifully brief. Otherwise, we had time to enjoy each other’s company, admire the view of Lake Curly-Gherkin from our marquee on the Yarralumla front lawn, and nick into the loos for a peek at the interior of Government House (it was a strangely charming sort of landed-gentry time warp.) Dessert was announced as Australia Day cake – we all looked at each other in anticipation, and were rewarded with pieces of extremely fancy jam sponge. How very Strayan. I guess it could only have been bettered by an enormous pavlova.

The afternoon saw everyone transported to Australia Day Live, an event held on the enormous nature strip thingy that sits between the two roads connecting Old Parliament House and Parliament House. Really, it’s the Australia Day Awards presentation, followed by a concert, but since it’s all broadcast on a commercial TV station I suppose it needed a catchy name.

As we approached the VIP enclosure, a few people were gathering on the lawned area. A group of boofheads were playing a version of backyard cricket, and despite their obnoxious dress-ups (straight out of the Aldi catalogue) they showed some wit by having their outfield populated by blow-up kangaroos. We passed another silly bugger in stubbies and a blue singlet standing before a barbecue he’d brought along and fired up, tending snags. How very Strayan.

The Awards would have been stirring, but for the frequent breaks in proceedings to allow for commercials. The network even managed to shoehorn one in after announcing Professor Mick Dodson as the Australian of the Year, but before he could even give his speech. It was odious.

that's me in the corner, and KRudd in the spotlight behind me

VIP enclosure: that's me in the corner, and KRudd in the spotlight behind me

The crowd started to gather in earnest as dusk fell, and the concert got underway. The musical lineup was not to my taste, but it was only a backdrop for the hors d’oeuvers in the VIP enclosure. If ‘enclosure’ sounds vaguely zoo-like, well it was; inside was the usual exotic mix of folk one sees at Berra events, from diverse backgrounds and walks of life, scoffing nosh like feeding time. Outside? It was pretty mono-cultural. Not sure who was on display, and who were the animals? As I wondered, the Bald Man ate about a dozen lamingtons for dinner.

the New Year lion sizing up a red package

the New Year lion sizing up a red package

Monday, Straya Day proper, was also Chinese New Year. It was actually celebrated in the Berra, a vast improvement on Slobart where it was so mono-cultural the date always passed unremarked. On the previous Saturday evening, dropping in at the Dickson video shop, we spotted a troupe of lion dancers doing the rounds of the restaurants in the Asian quarter, scaring away evil spirits with the loud drums and extorting their annual protection-money bonus. Actually, that’s a terrible slur, at least on the Berran troupe, who looked pretty clean-living (unlike, allegedly, their Sydney counterparts). In typical Berran fashion, one lion was even operated by a young anglo fellow (gasp) and a woman (GASP!). How very post-modern.

On Monday, as we returned the video, a very shiny and tinted p-plated ute adorned with two enormous Australian flags was slowly cruising the Dickson Asian restaurant strip. When we came out, it was doing yet another slow lap of the block. It was a little early for public holiday trading hours, and there were plenty of parking spots, so I’m not sure what the driver was doing circling, circling, circling. Anyway, about then a police patrol car arrived and also began circling, circling, circling, and the ute eventually went away. How very post-Cronulla.

After an afternoon spent at the Canberra Yacht Club (yes there is one! on the shores of the lake) we gathered up our friends Caro, Ricky & Dom and trekked back to Dickson to see in the Year of the Ox over a sav blanc and mountains of barbecued duck, pork and fried octopus. We totally missed the state-sponsored fireworks. There was an episode later that involved a trip to the supermarket, the purchase of a 20-serve pavlova (this is not an exaggeration), cream and fruit; let me spare you the details and just say that on Wednesday we’re still eating the results. How very Australia in 2009.

* Please don’t take offence; it’s a term of endearment. I’m half Chinky, ok?

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Where: Pizza Gusto, Red Hill shops
Open: Wednesday to Saturday evenings 6-9pm. Takeaway only, pickup only.
Self Described as: “Premium woodfired pizza, take away/al fresco”

When: Friday 16 January 2008, approx 2030
What was ordered:
1 pizza bianca (garlic pizza), large, $8
1 quattro gusti, large $17.50

In his desire for pizza nirvana, The Bald Man (TBM) has embarked on a quest: a quest for the perfect pizza. He accepts that his goal, like the pot at the end of the rainbow, may be forever out of his grasp, but he is nevertheless hopeful. Our occasional forays will be recorded in The Berra Circular.

Pizza Bianco, Red Hill Shops

Pizza Bianco, Red Hill Shops

Pizza Gusto, as recommended by kazari, is a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria in the efflu affluent embassy-suburb of Red Hill. Its dominant feature is the woodfired oven, an igloo-shaped brick oven at the rear of the open kitchen showing visible flames and kept stoked to a constant 350 degrees C.

It’s too far from our northside cottage to transport pizza for residential consumption, so we opted to dine at one of the limited, and very basic, outdoor settings. I wished I’d brought a cardy. And a bottle of wine, as the adjacent grocery and liquor shop closed at 8pm.

Pizza Gusto evidently practices the ‘less is more’ philosophy. The menu features 2 entree pizzas (garlic and pesto), 17 main pizzas (most with four or less toppings), three calzone, one dessert pizza (Italian chocolate spread) and an insalata verde. That’s it. Nothing else. The pizzas and calzone come in one size: large.

The pizza bianca was a good sign. It arrived in under 5 minutes, served on a lime green melamine dish. The base was a thin, airy, lightly savoury yeast dough finished to a lovely outer crispiness; the topping a light combo of finely crushed garlic, rosemary, flaked salt and olive oil. Yum.

We’d just finished inhaling this when the quattro gusti arrived. The standard quarters are all ‘single element’: tomato, mozzarella, and a quarter each of olive, mushroom, eggplant and calabrese salami.

the last of the quattro gusti

the last of the quattro gusti

Again served on a green melamine dish, the pizza looked just great. Unfortunately we fell upon it like ravenous dogs and did not remember to take a picture until there was just this pitiful half-slice left. So take our word for it, okay? It looked good.

TBM is not fond of olives, but nevertheless ate his slice and found it palatable. The olives were okay – Spanish black style but halved and juicy, not those terrible little black rubber tyres you get sometimes, and plentiful. The fresh, sliced mushrooms were a little undercooked, odd but not unacceptable. The eggplant had been pre-grilled and lightly marinated in vinegar before being cut into long strips for the pizza; TBM liked this quarter very much. And finally the thin slices of calabrese salami which had been liberally applied to the last quarter were tasty and packed a peppery punch.

The service was just right: run by 30- & 40- something Gen Xers, it was friendly, casual, complete with wry wit and smary general conversation. Very comfy.

Pizza Gusto isn’t the best place we’ve ever been to, but it was very good. The best we’ve had since leaving Slobart. Return visits are on the cards.

Pros: very good pizza base, fresh ingredients, quick and friendly service.
Cons: no decent eating area (outdoors is cold and draughty, Red Hil shops devoid of atmosphere). It’s a long way from home.

TBM comment: Orright.

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And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.
– Simon & Garfunkel, 1965

Boy, when the locals say The Berra empties over summer, they weren’t kidding.

I also joined the exodus for a period, visiting first the ancestral home deep in Melbourne’s burbs, followed by the obligitary stopover to some in-, uh, outlaws at the NSW mid-north coast hinterland, and then a couple of days’ relief in the wilds of the Barrington Tops with friends, where there were roos, wombats, quolls, wedgetails and water dragons to be seen on vast paddocks of cattle country freshly planted with eucalypts. I observed feral dog and razorback carcasses, climbed hills and forded streams, visited caves, abandoned quarries and old miner’s huts, drove quadbikes and shot at targets, and generally got in touch with my inner Sarah Palin. Yeeeeeeeee-HA.

Travelled back via the Central Coast (we spent NYE with some friends there, which was very pleasant in the way the evening should be, until 8 o’clock the next morning when the neighbour started up his lawnmower and proceeded to do his yard. On New Year’s Day – I shit you not). Bald Man and I got back in time to welcome our jazz officianado friends from Tamworth for a visit to Our National Capital.

They were here to tour a variety of the cultural institutions, which was great, as they were all open 9am-5pm every day. We whiled away some pleasant hours at the National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery, the National Museum, old and new Parliament Houses. Both veteran musicians and accomplished composers, Lis is also a painter and John originally an American (a ‘septic’, as he’s been taught to say) so there was a lot of culture for them to enjoy.

Alas, the enjoyment largely stopped there. Everything else we tried to take them to was shut. A late lunch/early dinner at Tilly’s, for a taste of a Berran institution? Shut, at 5pm on Saturday no less. Parlour Bar, for a civised cocktail and tapas? Shut, for renovations. Silo? Shut. A series of favourite cafes in Civic, Ainslie, Braddon? Shut, shut, shut. My poor friends. They thought the Berra was a ghost town, a poor impression since they were considering moving onwards and upwards from the country to somewhere with a little more happening, like the Berra – I’m embarassed to think where else they’d rather go now.

The final indignity came after our friends had departed, when the Bald Man and I went in search of a takeaway. His favourite is pizza – the good kind, with which we were very spoiled by several excellent purveyors in Slobart. In the Berra I’m sorry to say we have not found a single decent pizza place. We opted therefore for one of the cheap local outlets, Zeffirelli, which at least has the decency not to skewer your wallet for their ordinary fare. And it was… you guessed it. Shut. For three whole weeks over summer. As shut as Caffe Ravello around the corner. And that pretty much exhausts any of the edible pizza options in the locale.

Thank goodness for the cheap and cheerful Chinese, which was open and doing a roaring trade. Duck and noodles at the Tak Kee Inn went down a treat.

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