The house is still asleep as my father lights the fire in the slow combustion stove; an Everhot that lives up to its name. A barrow load of wood sits outside the back door to fuel the day, red gum swiftly split with an axe. By the time he has fed the sheepdogs and milked the cow the kitchen is warm and the coals are red hot. He slices a loaf of bread, threads a slice onto the prongs of the long toasting fork, opens the door to the fire and gently holds the bread near the coals, not too close. The bread curls toward the fire and crackles to a golden brown. He turns the bread over to cook the other side, slides it off the tines and slathers it with homemade butter and apricot jam.
Welcome to my new blog, Knife & Fork in the Road! I thought it only fitting that my first post include one of the very first forks I remember, a rather large one used to cook our morning toast. The toasting fork was a common utensil used in daily life on rural properties when I was a small child. Like many farms, we had our own lighting plant and 32 volt power, and on 32 volt you weren’t able to run any heating appliances, and that included a toaster.
There was an art to the toasting fork. The bread had to be thread just right so that it didn’t fall off into the coals, and also be held at just the right distance from the fire so that it didn’t catch alight. Unfortunately, our toasting fork is now long gone but daily rituals and routines carried out as a child have a way of sticking in your mind, whether it be cooking toast over hot coals in rural Australia or running down to the boulangerie for a warm baguette in Paris.
I have always looked at the world through food and many of my earliest memories revolve around the kitchen from my country childhood. With its constant comings and goings, the kitchen was the centre of my mother’s world and the heart of our farm. From daybreak until late into the night, the kitchen was where we gathered, talked, cooked and ate…where there was always a homemade biscuit in the tin, ABC blaring on the radio, and someone popping in for afternoon tea. It was a comfortable, secure cocoon filled with love, food and activity, a high-traffic place that we ran into with fresh mulberries, buckets of mushrooms or a lemon from the tree, and out again with a square of caramel slice or slice of warm chocolate cake.
In winter, there was always something simmering away on the stove top to slurp a spoonful of: pea and ham soup or a lamb stew that filled the house with its sweet, reassuring aroma. The stove was where we warmed our hands after the walk home from the bus stop, and cooked pikelets on the hot plate. From the oven came the smell of cakes baking for the shearer’s smoko or sticky, slow-roasted legs of mutton, while the top racks had myriad functions from rising buns to drying the Adelaide Advertiser before its pages could be read. Thrown daily from the main road dressed in nothing but a flimsy white paper girdle, the paper was often drenched, heavy and forlorn by the time we found it in long grass by the roadside.
The hearth revived sick baby chicks, and now and again, my father, soft at heart, would come through the back door cradling a newborn lamb that had been left for dead in the paddock. We would make a warm bed on the hearth where it slowly recuperated, often with the aid of a pipette or two of brandy.
And then there was the slow bottom oven that always seemed to contain a batch of meringues, a sensible way to use up all those eggs.
These early memories have not only stoked a lifelong passion for fresh seasonal food, but a constant search for addresses with a strong sense of place and authenticity, places that are honest, real and inviting, and passionate about their produce. Although I love the glamour of a gorgeous five-star hotel, and the thrill of dining in a Michelin-starred restaurant, it is the everyday places where the locals go, whether in Paris or Adelaide, that make my heart sing the most, perhaps because in some ephemeral way, they remind me of the warmth of my childhood.