Days of pale wine and radishes
On the beginning of spring
Spring is here; the magnolias are blooming. When the wind kicks up, they drop gently curved petals, creamy white on one side and a deep, secret pink on the other. You can feel the change of season in the air, the way the chill of night gives way to mid-morning warmth. Fingers of sunlight on a bedroom wall. Outside, the grass is Astroturf green. A season of renewal, of the earth reinventing itself. Even now, with these short, warm winters (shorter and warmer every year), it’s impossible not to feel a sense of optimism in these first, green months.
In winter, it is proper to eat for sustenance; in spring, for pleasure alone. At this time of year, I am lured by glossy curls of silverbeet, tiny new potatoes, the fine, sharp scent of spring onions. Piles of lemons, waiting for a fingernail to release their fragrance. It is a season of green on the plate as well. Delicate zucchini flowers, destined to be filled with ricotta and seared in a pan; frothy fronds of dill; pungent basil, so easily bruised but none the worse for it. Slender bulbs of bok choy. Tart green apples. Black-skinned avocados, buttery green inside.
What should you drink in spring? Over winter, I like cynar, amaro, mirto – bitter drinks for a bitter season. But spring calls for less dolorous things. A pale, pleasant wine of the unfiltered kind, mysterious with sediment, or something dry and blush-coloured, served very cold. A martini, which is right for every season (I read somewhere that a gin martini with an olive is a banker’s drink while a vodka martini with a twist is preferred by poets, but in my own experience, I have found the opposite to be true). Sparkling water, so effervescent it leaves a sensation on the palate that is almost like burning.
I want simplicity in spring; I want what’s easy. Broad beans tumbled into lemony pasta and scattered with ribbons of mint. A thin clear broth of ginger and garlic, its surface shimmering with sesame oil. Good bread, generously spread with butter and topped with whisper-thin slices of radish and cracked black pepper. Eggs from the farmer’s markets, their yolks so orange they seem somewhat unreal, boiled and served with nothing but a little flaky salt, eaten straight from the shell with a spoon. Improvised dishes – easy to pull off so long as your ingredients are fresh and good – as relaxed as a loose seam. I want to have friends over in the early evening hours, while the sun still gilds the trees. I want to fill vases with budding flowers and branches with their new, green leaves.
On the first day of spring, I was in Victoria’s central highlands, where the climate is cooler than elsewhere in the state. There, the days were still cold and sharp; frost tipped the grass in the mornings. By the afternoon, the sun was brilliant and in the streets, the plum trees were fuzzed pink with blooms. In the evening, I visited a local wine bar, where the daily menu was written on a chalkboard and music (jazz, the blues) drifted warmly from a record player behind the bar.
It was still early. To me, this is the ideal time to dine, when the sky retains a little colour and most of the seats are empty. Through the open door to the kitchen, I could see the chef tending to several large silver pots. On the menu: tagliatelle with morel mushrooms; roasted cauliflower with saffron agrodolce; a salad of shaved cabbage and dark leaves of treviso. The last of the winter vegetables, all earth and bitterness.
Craving the new season, I asked my waiter could he bring me something fresh, whatever tasted most like spring? Of course he could. A slab of leek pie, pastry buttery with sour cream, leeks reduced to melting sweetness, topped with bright stems of watercress. A salad of late Beurre Bosc pears, fennel and Roquefort, its salty richness cut through by a bright lemon vinaigrette. I drank a glass of muscadet, light and cleanly acidic, as lean as a new, green stem.
I ate slowly. It was pleasant to sit alone, listening to the music on the record player and the gentle buzz of other people’s conversations, to drink good wine and eat honest food. Outside, the sky changed from ink to black. I walked home in the cold night air. In the darkness, the blossoms on the trees seemed almost green.
This piece was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age as a column in the Spectrum. But I wrote it with this newsletter in mind, so I wanted to share it here, with you.
In case of interest
I wrote about the gothic visions of set and costume designer Dann Barber; what to expect from The Australian Ballet’s 2024 season (which includes a new ballet based on the life of Oscar Wilde); what it’s like learning to drive as an adult; and the world’s greatest painting of a cat.
Good things to read
“of course I want a cigarette, I always do, I always want a photograph, I always want to write it down, I always want some variation of I know, I promise ---.” New writing from Laura Stortenbeker always hits. – via some notes
“Close your eyes. Think about Melbourne. Think about its leafy streets, its wrought iron awnings, its glowing storefronts. Think of eating in a restaurant, perhaps in a cobblestone laneway, or looking out the windows from one of those storefronts. The waiters might know your name, know your family, know your drink order. You know exactly where you are.” Besha Rodell on the joys of dining in Melbourne – via The Age
A long interview with fashion critics Tim Blanks and Cathy Horyn. – via System
One more thing!
It’s been a long time since I last sent out this newsletter – please forgive the silence! This is largely due to the fact I’ve spent the last four months working on two book projects for Smith Street Books. The first is a revised and expanded edition of The Deck of Crystals, which will soon be published in shiny book form; and the second is an illustrated biography of Vivienne Westwood (in the same vein as my book on Frida Kahlo). Both books are due out in 2024.
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