Give the Gift of Good News

The Hip Gift of the Year

I live on the dividing line between two worlds in Sydney: Kings Cross with its tawdry burlesque joints and sex shops (with window displays of risque Santa Suits), fast food joints, weird buskers, hookers and drug addicts on the streets and the affluent Potts Point with its luxury apartments, gourmet deli’s and gift shops with ironic, infantile toys for adults, fashionably impractical homewares, and books as decorating details. I’m mulling over the idea of what to give the people I’ll be spending Christmas with, and I’m leaning towards liquid gifts: coffee beans, tea leaves, vodka. Everyday luxuries, not something smartly useless wrapped up in shiny paper. But just to keep my options open I wandered into a few stores when I went out for coffee this morning. Princess Pink and Baby Blue are the colours of the season and the couple of shops I went into seemed to be stacking up gifts for a baby shower: fluffy pink bedroom slippers ($50), Prada soaps in a dusty pink box ($70), and the hip blue object of the moment is Greg and Lucy Malouf’s new cookbook, Turquoise. Its bright turqoise cover so prettily accents the other baby blue gift-giving opportunities arrayed around it.

Greg Malouf is an Australian chef of Lebanese heritage who has celebrated and adapted Middle Eastern food for Australians. His cookbooks and spice mixes are indispensible tools for chefs and home cooks. Lucy Malouf, his ex-wife, is a writer and editor. Eating at Greg’s restaurant Mo Mo, in Melbourne, gave me the understanding of how food in restaurants relates to home cooking. How the grace and courtesy that I’d experienced as a guest at the homes of Lebanese and Iranian friends in Los Angeles and the ceremonial charm of the traditional food is preserved but turned into artistry. The cuisine has been adapted for a new world with the skill and inspiration of an accomplished chef without diminishing or commercializing the generosity of spirit that’s at the base of these refined ancient cultures. I was with my musician friend, Kelly Salloum, who was visiting from Los Angeles. Her family is originally from Lebanon and she grew up in Canada and Kelly steeped herself in the traditions her family brought from the Middle East. She has the soul and well-crafted musicianship of a Bill Evans era jazz musician, but for the last decade has explored and documented the traditional music of cultures from around the world. She learned Sanskrit for her ethnomusicology degree and sings in Arabic, her jazz album is dedicated to the great Egyptian singer Oum Khalsoum. But Kelly is also a gracious and generous hostess well-known for the parties she hosts with tables laden with the food she learned to make growing up, from the same kind of family recipes handed down to Greg Malouf.

Kelly wanted to eat at Mo Mo because Saha, Greg and Lucy Malouf’s previous book based on their travels through Syria and Lebanon, matched the itinerary for her own travels. When I was flipping through her copy of the book it was the writing that caught me. The dazzling photography and design of Greg and Lucy Malouf’s books might make them a merchandiser’s dream, but the text in Saha is equally engaging. The stories the Malouf’s tell are a lament for a threatened civilisation. They visited Beirut as the period of peace that followed its civil war was coming to an end, and they quote articles by Robert Fisk, the Middle Eastern correspondent for the English newspaper The Independent, who genuinely loves and admires the people he’s lived among for the last quarter century. Fisk catches the threads of a world unravelling and the complexities and contradictions of wars fought over ancient beliefs and rivalries from the point of view of the individuals who are caught up in it. A couple of weeks ago he wrote about people moving out of their homes in Beirut.

So where do we go from here? I am talking into blackness because there is no electricity in Beirut. And everyone, of course, is frightened. A president was supposed to be elected today. He was not elected. The corniche outside my home is empty. No one wants to walk beside the sea.

When I went to get my usual breakfast cheese manouche there were no other guests in the café. We are all afraid. My driver, Abed, who has loyally travelled with me across all the war zones of Lebanon, is frightened to drive by night. I was supposed to go to Rome yesterday. I spared him the journey to the airport.

It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to be in a country that sits on plate glass. It is impossible to be certain if the glass will break. When a constitution breaks – as it is beginning to break in Lebanon – you never know when the glass will give way.

People are moving out of their homes, just as they have moved out of their homes in Baghdad. I may not be frightened, because I’m a foreigner. But the Lebanese are frightened. I was not in Lebanon in 1975 when the civil war began, but I was in Lebanon in 1976 when it was under way. I see many young Lebanese who want to invest their lives in this country, who are frightened, and they are right to frightened. What can we do?

Robert Fisk. The Independent. November 24, 2007

Taking Lessons from Justin North

So what can and should chefs not just in Australia but around the world do to help ease the food crisis, and to protect our land and produce? We must consider sustainability.

My restaurant’s menu takes into consideration particular farming practices and how they affect the environment. We understand more about our produce: where it is from, how it is farmed, raised or caught. Rather than buying from aquaculture farms that dredge their scallops from the ocean floor, for instance, I buy from ones where divers collect the scallops by hand.

Thinking this way is vital if chefs want to avoid a future where all of the best and most interesting produce are protected species. This means changing our practices and demanding that our suppliers change as well.

Justin North. Op-Ed piece. The New York Times. July 29, 2007.

Justin North concluded his New York Times story by saying that Australia’s then Prime Minister John Howard had told farmers facing irrigation shortages to pray for rain. “The Murray cod deserves better than that, and so do all Australian food lovers,” he wrote. Political change is swift in Australia. There was an election one Saturday a few weeks ago and by Monday a new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was at work and his first act was to ratify the Kyoto protocol. In his second week as Prime Minister he was one of leaders from 190 nations attending the United Nations conference in Bali to assess what must be done now to arrest the ravages of climate change. On December 3 The New York Times carried an Editorial on the importance having the huge developing economies of India and China as part of the negotiations.

Whatever happens, China and India have to be part of the equation. Along with other developing countries, both were exempted from making any commitments to reduce emissions at Kyoto on grounds that the industrialized countries bore the heaviest historical responsibility. Given the extraordinary growth in both countries, that argument is no longer sustainable. But it will be much easier to get China, India and others to adopt aggressive policies if the United States is also on board.

The story at the top of the “Most E-Mailed” list today on The New York Times concerns fish being farmed in toxic waters in China.

“For 50 years,” said Wang Wu, a professor at Shanghai Fisheries University, “we’ve blindly emphasized economic growth. The only pursuit has been G.D.P., and now we can see that the water turns dirty and the seafood gets dangerous. Every year, there are food safety and environmental pollution accidents.”

Environmental problems plaguing seafood would appear to be a bad omen for the industry. But with fish stocks in the oceans steadily declining and global demand for seafood soaring, farmed seafood, or aquaculture, is the future. And no country does more of it than China, which produced about 115 billion pounds of seafood last year.

China produces about 70 percent of the farmed fish in the world, harvested at thousands of giant factory-style farms that extend along the entire eastern seaboard of the country. Farmers mass-produce seafood just offshore, but mostly on land, and in lakes, ponds, rivers and reservoirs, or in huge rectangular fish ponds dug into the earth.

David Barboza. The New York Times. December 15, 2007.

Justin North’s first cookbook centred on the farmers and purveyors who provide the produce he uses at his Sydney restaurant Becasse. But alongside the deep beauty of his food and his enthusiasm for the quality of the produce he uses ran a quiet and warmly intelligent call to action on the problems facing farmers in Australia today: the cleanliness and sustainability of our oceans, the role of scientific innovation in food production, the lack of water, wild and unrealiable changes in weather patterns affecting crops and creeping salinity in the land. His new cookbook, French Lessons, (edited by Lucy Malouf) is a guide to the techniques of French cooking, adapted, he writes, for the modern taste for “lighter, more delicate and intensely flavoured foods”. It has no shortcuts. “It’s important to realise that good food takes a level of care.”

Prime Minister Rudd and his agriculture Minister, Tony Burke, have both been visiting rural areas and talking about the hardships climate change is causing for farmers. On ABC radio the Prime Minister quoted an Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics paper which has projected the effects of climate change on agriculture. “By 2030, we face the possibility of a 10 per cent decline in agricultural production. By 2050, the possibility of a 20 per cent decline in agricultural production against a no-change basis. Then, up to a 63 per cent decline in Australian rural exports by 2030, and up to a 79 per cent decline by 2050.”

In the same radio report Chris Ulhmann asked the agriculture minister to comment on the paper.

CHRIS UHLMANN: The report points out that Australia’s agricultural sector has adjusted an adapted continuously to changes in the natural resource base, including climate variability. In future, it says, Australia will need crops that are water efficient, and that have high tolerance to pests, diseases and salinity. And that presents another problem for Tony Burke because those crops are likely to be genetically modified. He says he will be consulting farmers about it.

TONY BURKE: There’s no doubt there’s some science out there which says some of the climate change issues we’re dealing with, GM, will provide part of the puzzle in dealing with that. It’s still the case, particularly in Western Australia and Tasmania, there’s some particular concerns from farmers there that they want to preserve a competitive market advantage that they see by not endorsing GM. And that’s why the consultation that we’re going through is real.

Australia’s second largest supermarket chain, Coles, has just been acquired by Wesfarmers, a century old company that began as a Western Australian farmers co-operative that’s now a conglomerate that includes home building supplies and electronics stores, fertiliser manufacturers, coal mining operations and an insurance business that includes rural financing. It has brought in an advisor from Britain who applied WalMart methods to lifting the fortunes of an English supermarket chain. ABC news reported that a representative from Wesfarmers talked to the Western Australian Farmers Federation about bringing more meat produced in Western Australia into supermarkets there. Wesfarmers would like to increase local meat supplies, which make up 40% of the current supplies, but claim that they’re unable to acquire the volume of meat they need locally. “It would be very nice to be able to say that 100 per cent of meat in Coles stores in Western Australia came from Western Australia … but I doubt that that’s ever going to be achievable because of the issues of supply and demand and price and quality,” Keith Kessell told the ABC.

Justin North writes that among the lessons we can learn from the French is their approach to purchasing produce directly from regional farmers, not supermarkets.

Another of my goals in French Lessons is to encourage you, the reader and home cook, to develop a similar approach to food and to cooking to what you find in France. That is, to focus far more on quality and freshness than on convenience when it comes to selecting your produce. In many Fench towns, people shop for food on a daily basis, and fresh produce markets rather than giant supermarkets are still the preferred option, wherever possible. While I understand that not many people have the time or opportunity to shop daily, I do really encourage you to spend more time shopping at markets and greengrocers, to support your local butchers and fishmongers, to spend the extra dollar on organic and free-range rather than mass produced foodstuffs. Not only will your dinner taste better, but you will also be doing your part to keep alive the dream of the small, local and passionate producers who so greatly need your support.

Justin North. Introduction. French Lessons.