singapore weekend

Global cities are well defined in economic terms. They dominate the trade and commerce of their home countries and beyond; they have global decision-making capabilities, and they are centres of distinction and innovation in education, entertainment and technology.

Global cities to me always had a more visceral definition: larger than life, they know they are different, more important, create a larger vortex. And crucially, they don’t care. They are too busy being a global city to think about it too much, and they certainly don’t care what you think. A visitor to a global city is not required or expected to fall in love with the place, to applaud its many merits and achievements. Citizens of global cities really just want visitors to walk at a decent pace, learn quickly what side of the escalator to stand on, spend their money and generally not get in the way.

As a result, of course, we all adore these places. Never mind that New Yorkers are brash and direct, that the rents are as sky-high as the buildings. Those most critical of US foreign policy or cultural domination will sigh at the mention of New York and declare it their favourite city on earth. Never mind that London is congested and chilly, or that the tube has no air-conditioning, or that Heathrow is a nightmare. Everybody wants to go and live in London in their gap year. It’s the buzz, you see.

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Some people equate Global Cities with something more: on top of the economists’ definitions, they also expect them to be multi-cultural melting pots, intersection points for all the races and cultures of the world. To me, this melting-pot criterion is not necessary: you don’t really get that in Tokyo or Hong Kong, and yet they are true Global Cities.

In the late 1990s some academics in Loughborough University, of all places, made a catalogue of Global Cities. In A++ place were London and New York, naturally. In close second at A+ level were Hong Kong, Paris, Shanghai, Tokyo, Beijing, Sydney, Singapore and Dubai.

According to my definition it’s almost right. Hong Kong may technically be part of China but it will always be, defiantly, just Hong Kong. Similarly, Shanghai’s colonial past sets it a little apart from the rest of China and it has its own unique feel and sub-culture. Beijing is inextricably linked with the rest of China, both culturally and economically, but its citizens remind me more of the people of New York than the people of Xi’an. Come and visit if you like, just keep out of the way.

Paris, is, of course, Paris. Enough said.

But Sydney? To me, Australia’s largest city is still far too self-conscious to be a genuine Global City. Yes, technically its economic and political influence is significant both in Australia and in Asia Pacific, so the Loughborough University definition stands. But it tries too hard to be liked, admired, acknowledged. It’s like the younger sibling of one of the cool kids in high school, hanging around with the big boys, trying to fit in. It’s Sandra Dee, or a young graduate with their first proper job, hiding their lack of self-confidence money and swagger, but little sophistication.

Also, to this Old-Worlder, it’s difficult to see such a young city as a real Global City. To me, Global Cities are simultaneously ancient and new, patched together, organically developed, hectic places where you can almost see the growth rings like those of an old tree.

The chaos is only barely under control; the plumbing and sanitation and road works and public transport survive each day somehow, and everybody heaves a sigh of relief. One unfortunate passenger under a tube train, one set of Manhattan traffic lights on the blink, one Star Ferry running late, and London/New York/Hong Kong teeters on the brink of rush-hour annihilation.

That to me is what a Global City feels like.

A weekend in Singapore, then, was an interesting scenario. This famous city state holds around 6 million citizens in an area about the same size as the Tasman Peninsula in Australia, half of County Dublin or the Isle of Man. There are skyscrapers as far as the eye can see, but those in the central business district are so tall that the “regular” buildings further out don’t seem to warrant the name.

I had few expectations except for tales of humidity, pristine streets and underground shopping malls built to shield Singaporeans from the heat above ground. I looked forward to the biggest observation wheel in the world and plenty of rooftop cocktail bars.

Did it feel like a true Global City? I don’t know. Again, the economic influence is undoubted, and the urban landscape is sensational. The shopping is fantastic, the street food legendary, the coffee alone worth the trip. A smattering of world-class iconic structures make the cityscape interesting: the enormous Singapore Flyer and the Marina Bay Sands, a warped surfboard resting on a wicket.

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But…. It was a little sterile. Of course, Singapore is renowned for its cleanliness and order, rules and regulations: no chewing gum, no littering, no durian fruit on the trains.

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The trains run on time, the people all stand on the correct side of the escalator, and they all walk on the left hand side of the pavement. The result is a little futuristic and surreal, if like me you come from an ancient and chaotic town like Dublin. The people were unfailingly polite, friendly, warm and helpful, which was lovely. Whilst it was an incredibly busy place, there was little of the barely-controlled frenzy you often feel in other huge cities. I liked it, mostly.

The vast warren of inter-connecting underground shopping malls was a real eye-opener. I’m not a bit claustrophobic, but I ended up feeling quite relieved each time we emerged chilled and blinking from that air-conditioned fluorescent netherworld into the tropical sunlight. At any given time, six million Singaporeans are hermetically sealed in vast steel-and-concrete tubes, either horizontally underground or vertically reaching for the sky. It can’t be right.

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The rooftop bars were a delight. No matter where you are in the centre of town, the views are sensational. From the understated sophistication of the seventh floor Lighthouse Bar at the Fullerton, to the de trop ostentation of Ku De Ta atop the Marina Bay Sands, we tried them all (or many of them, anyway).

The Lighthouse was just delightful. “You look beautiful!”, exclaimed the (female) manager to me as I emerged from the lift. I didn’t, but I accepted the compliment graciously. A perfectly made Bombay Sapphire and tonic was the way to enjoy the tacky but entertaining laser show across the water at the Marina Bay Sands. Time your visit for 8pm or 9.30pm (and 11pm on Saturdays) to watch the dancing lights in understated luxury.

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Ku De Ta is of course the place to see and be seen, and they keep away the hoi polloi with plenty of rules: men must wear closed-in shoes (women are good to go in strappy sandals). No shorts, singlets, slippers or tank tops. You’d better book ahead even for drinks (but the minimum spend is quoted as S$80 a head, and you don’t get a seat). The door staff on the ground floor will vet you even before you get to the lifts. The result was a spectacular view, no shelter if it rained, a disappointing drinks list, far too much ice and marmalade (you heard me) in my cocktail, very little space to take it all in and a quick decision to move on to the next bar.

The City Space bar on the 70th floor of the Stamford, on the other hand, may look north away from Marina Bay and That Building, but the atmosphere is relaxed, welcoming and much more grown-up. Karen the manager got to know us by name, scored us window seats every time and brought our “usual” cocktails to us with a smile.

The Lantern on the top of the modern Fullerton Bay is a great spot, not too high but perfectly placed to enjoy the unique Marina Bay skyline. It’s a bit after-worky in the early evening, but a great place to watch the sunset and get in the mood for the night ahead.

So is Singapore on my personal lists of Global Cities? No. Is it a good destination for a weekend break, a spot of shopping, a reason to sip a Singapore Sling by the pool, a chance to overdose on kopi peng (Singaporean iced coffee), an opportunity to dress up and bar-hop with the best of them? Absolutely.

See you next time, Singapore.

 

 

 

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mystic pizza

The Hyundai Elantra is a decent car, but nobody ever called it exciting. We stand in the Hertz office by New Haven train station, and Orlando looks longingly at pictures of other, sexier, cars.

“I don’t suppose you have anything available in your Adrenalin range?”, he asks hopefully. We’d already tried and failed to book a muscle car online, but New Haven Amtrak Hertz didn’t appear to do anything but nice sedans. The young man shakes his head. “Sorry sir.” Then, “Wait, I think we might have a Mustang. Would that do?” Orlando looks hopefully at me. I nodded.

Ten minutes later we drive away in a dark grey Mustang convertible, Orlando at the wheel, me trying my best to look cool despite my sensible attire. Driving on the right hand side of the road for the first time in maybe ten years, Orlando handles the car like a pro as we head towards the freeway sans satnav. How hard can navigating be on decent roads with signs in English?

The I-95 is the main east coast highway, running all the way from Florida to the Canadian border. The Mustang purrs along, eastwards across the great Connecticut River and past the signs for Rocky Neck State Park. An hour later another river, this time the Thames River (as opposed to the River Thames) that flows, predictably, through New London.

Mystic is a pretty old seaport with a huge maritime museum and a pizza place made famous by the 1988 movie, Mystic Pizza. The museum precinct is full of beautiful old houses and military buildings, manicured lawns, centuries-old cannons and more flags than you can shake a stick at. Despite the drizzle, the Christmas lights and decorations and pretty shops make Mystic a welcoming little town. We park the Mighty Mustang (all the while hoping somebody might see us and be impressed by our choice of vehicle) and take a mini-tour of the main drag. Bookstores stand cheek by jowl alongside expensive clothes shops, navy surplus places and surprisingly few eateries.

Near the top of the high street stands Mystic Pizza, the restaurant that inspired the 1980s teenage movie of the same name. Given my obsession with food and specifically pizza, my craving for Christmas-themed spiced milky drinks accompanied by cookies shaped like Christmas trees fly out the window and we walk inside.

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The booths are named for famous roads: Pacific Highway, New Orleans’ French Quarter, even London’s Abbey Road. The blurb on the menu reminisces about hordes of fans lining the streets during the heyday of the movie, but on a cold, raining Monday lunchtime we are almost the only diners. Two mugs of tea are served at less than scalding temperatures, but I suppose we are in America, the Land of the Lukewarm Beverage. I am momentarily distracted by the thought of a nice bowl of New England clam chowder, but let’s face it: in a week’s time will I look back and be happy with this menu choice in this particular restaurant? We order a large Meatza Pizza to share, extra jalapeños, well cooked.

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Back outside in the freezing cold, we take another turn along the high street before retreating to the Mustang for the drive back. I take the wheel this time, heading westwards for a few miles along Route 1, through the pretty villages of Poquonock Bridge and Groton.

Back onto the huge iron bridge across the Thames River, Orlando falls asleep while I put my foot down and get a feel for the Mustang. I turn up the radio. Mariah Carey sings All I Want For Christmas Is You, the first Christmas tune I’ve heard on the trip so far. I sing along as the highway junctions fly past, surprisingly not waking up the sleeping beauty beside me. This is turning into a pretty decent holiday.

the big barossa

A free hire car upgrade is always a good way to start a weekend away. Satnav on and away we go, out of Adelaide, up the Main North Road to wine country. Shiraz country, to be precise: the Big Barossa.

Once past the outer suburbs the landscape becomes more and more sun-scorched, all browns, ochres and straw-yellows. An hour later we round a bend in the highway and there they are: vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see. “Hello vines!”, I call excitedly.

Off the main highway we meander towards the town of Nuriootpa. I welcome each winery sign like an old friend: Torbrecks; Richmond Grove; Peter Lehman. We locate our guesthouse and head straight to the cathedral of wineries. Penfolds seems the perfect place to worship on an Easter weekend.

I queue to buy some tawny, then join the crowd at the tasting bar. Never mind the pinots, or the affordable Koonunga Hill: I ask the pourer to start me on a shiraz-grenache-mourvedre mix. The first sip is divine, and so it begins.

On down the list I go, past an interesting shiraz-mourvedre and a very lovely cool-climate shiraz, but predictably it is the big Bin 28 that has my eyes rolling back in my head as the deep purple liquid hits home.

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The big hitters of 2010 – Bin 408 cabernet sauvignon and Bin 389 cabernet shiraz, the Baby Grange – are tempting. But it’s the last pour, the 2010 Bin 150 Marananga shiraz that is the very best of all. As the last drops trickle down, I thank the lord for those first pioneering Barossa winemakers who made their home here way back in the mid-1800s.

Back in our guesthouse, we open a bottle of the farm’s own 2008 shiraz and lower ourselves into the waiting hot tub on the verandah. We sit and gaze over the vines as the sun sets, moving on to a decent local tawny as we put the world to rights.

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Back inside we curl up on the sofa with a platter of local pates, cheeses and salamis as darkness settles and the countryside falls silent.

Another day in wine paradise.

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connemara summer

Bernard’s “Big Five-Oh” gives the Doyle family something to celebrate, and we head to Connemara for a holiday. Red Sails, our home for the week, is in the centre of Carna village, deep in the heart of Connemara and right on the water’s edge. We arrive in convoy with fishing rods, welly boots, cameras, rain jackets, a dog called Beauty and enough food and wine to feed a small army.

We quickly find our way around: Carna village is just big enough for us. The church is about a hundred paces from our hall door, and we stroll down there on Sunday morning to join the local parishioners at Mass, conducted of course in Irish. We are in the heart of the Gaeltacht here. The local Parish Priest is leaving and his sermon is  brief but heartfelt. Although we are strangers to the village, we are moved by his tears as he thanks the people of the parish he has served for seven years. Mum and I are delighted that we manage to understand about three-quarters of the Irish spoken by both priest and parishioners.

The gossip flows outside Geraghty’s supermarket across the road after Mass. Don’t let the supermarket description fool you: this is no bigger than your local corner shop really, but it does a good line in fresh deli foods and baked goods, and it is close enough to send the kids down every morning for fresh milk and bread. Over the road, Tigh Mhóráin is a classical grocery/pub, with a front door leading to a mini-market and the back door to what appears to be the regular haunt for most of the village’s blokes. One more pub, another small shop, a post office and a locally-owned hotel completes the village circuit.

Somebody is always up early to start breakfast. With eight people in the house, the youngest a thirteen year old boy, we get through a lot of sausages.

Connemara chic is de rigeur: green welly boots to protect against puddles, rock pools, the odd wave and the forever-threatening rain; shorts or leggings; a few layers to be ready for anything the Atlantic throws at us; local féile hoodie bought from Tigh Mhóráin’s; hair tied back against the wind; sunglasses just to be optimistic. Plenty of sunscreen and no makeup. I haven’t seen a full-length mirror since Dublin and it is probably just as well.

A five-minute drive in any direction brings you to an isolated, stunning beach, a tiny village harbour (céibh) to fish from, a vast pond-still lake surrounded by ancient bog and dry-stone walls, or another dramatic vista of the Twelve Bens. The changeable weather – clouds and sun, the occasional rainshower – just heightens the beauty of the place as the light changes and the landscape changes colour.

At Roundstone on a sunny summer Sunday, the world and his wife are out. There is a hooker race (traditional Irish sailing boats, not women of dodgy repute), a pony show and a craft fair on. People sit outside the many seafood restaurants and bars, putting the world to rights as only the Irish can. I fill up with petrol outside an old-fashioned grocery store with two ancient petrol pumps outside. We buy a round in McDowd’s pub and stroll across the road to sit on the harbour wall and watch the boats assemble. None of your plastic glasses here: you are expected to take good care of your pint if you wander outside.

On Gurteen Strand nearby we find a sheltered spot and the hardier specimens in the family chance a dip in the sea. I hold their towels.

Later in the week down at “Doyle Beach” (it’s actually called Moyrus Beach but we adopted it) there is a newly constructed céibh, a handful of moored currachs, an expanse of beach to let the dog run around, a marvellous view of Errisbeg Mountain beyond Roundstone, and very cold water. On a blustery, chilly evening, I stand in full “Connemara chic” regalia, topped off by a Gore-Tex rainjacket, hood up, hat on, with a full body of goosepimples, as the onshore wind drops the temperature from a balmy 14C to something closer to single digits. I watch as Ashling and Connor frolic in the waves wearing nothing more than this season’s Billabong beachwear. Days earlier, I almost got hypothermia diving nearby in a semi-dry and shortie. These children, I conclude, are mad.

The cemetery standing alongside the beach – all the dead of Connemara enjoy stunning views – has graves going back to before famine times. Plenty of people had eighty years or more before they turned up their toes: must be the sea air. A poignant headstone tucked at the back of the old chapel ruins commemorates Nora and Mathias McDonagh and their three young sons aged eight, five and four, all of whom died in June 1909. The headstone was erected by the children of their only remaining child, a daughter, Mary McDonagh McGagh, who died in Boston in 1990 aged ninety-nine. Another grave at the very edge of the cemetery had the headstones all facing the wall: very odd until you climb around to read the inscriptions and find two of the three buried there had died in America. The headstones are facing west across the Atlantic.

On Mweenish Island, just ten minutes’ drive in the other direction, a random turning off the boreen brings us down a barely-paved track to a gem of a little beach overlooking Mweenish Bay. Facing east on a breezy day, there is hardly a breath of wind as the family diverges to poke around rock pools, scramble on rocks or simply drink in the view. The sun comes out and we sit contentedly on boulders of Connemara stone, faces upturned to the summer warmth. Across the water on Finish Island, the ruins of an old village rise up against the sky. Seven or eight houses, abandoned presumably during or after the famine year.

On Friday morning the village of Carna is awake with activity. It is the feast day of the local saint, Mac Dara, who brought Christianity to Connemara over  fifteen hundred years ago. He is buried just offshore on Saint MacDara’s Island, and each year on the sixteenth of July the entire parish and many others make the pilgrimage by boat to the island where Mass is said. We have no lifejackets so we can’t travel with them, but I follow the crowds to Mace pier (céibh) to see them off. The céibh is already buzzing before ten in the morning. I am the only English speaker. A “Takeaway Chonamara” van is set up and doing a roaring trade in “tóg abhaile” (take-away) teas and coffees: later we will enjoy a few trays of traditional Irish chips with curry sauce.

Two men emerge from the back of a white van and start to assemble a new wooden altar with an electric screwdriver. The altar is made from freshly-varnished pine, the images of the féile on the front: a Galway hooker in full sail and three men rowing a currach. In between, in  place of the usual image of Saint MacDara’s island chapel, is a simple wooden cross. Mass is usually said on the island from a table precariously placed atop a huge rock under which it is said the saint himself is buried. These local men have built this new flat-pack altar as an alternative, to be taken out year after year then disassembled and stored away. It is beautiful.

I interrupt a priest chatting in excellent French to two tourists. He tells me there will be no mass on the island today as the winds are too strong to sail safely across. Originally from Dublin’s North Wall, Séamus Ó Dúill (James Doyle) is the priest from nearby Cill Chiaráin and has served as a priest is the Connemara Gaeltacht for years. Delighted, I race home to tell the others that Mass will be held on the céibh at noon, so we can all attend.

An hour later, we stand in a throng of three or four hundred people facing the newly-hewn altar now atop a Joyces of Recess curtain-sided truck at the base of the céibh. A heavy shower gives way to sunshine as the Cill Chiaráin priest gets Mass underway. It is conducted in Irish, of course, with a few welcoming words in French and English at the beginning for the small number of tourists from the local hotel. Before Mass is ended, two local babies are christened on the quayside as part of the féile celebrations. We stand together, taking in the scene, and are grateful to be given the opportunity to be part of this old parish tradition.

When Mass is over we mill around the céibh and the rocks, as a flotilla of Galway hookers magically appear in the bay. There will be sea racing and live traditional music all day. We sit on the edge of the céibh, gazing seawards as the traditional brown-red sails unfurl above the pitch-black craft. And they’re off! Round the holy island and back: we watch their ballet all afternoon as currach races happen closer to shore.

Meanwhile four gleaming currachs, newly painted black, their gunwales and oars picked out in vibrant red, green, yellow and blow, get ready for the off. The sea is choppy and the tide is coming in as they head out to the island. We are cosy under three or four layers of warm clothes whilst these modern-day gladiators battle against the waves of the Atlantic bare-chested except for their flotation devices. They row so far out that we can no longer tell them apart. As they make the return journey, a roar goes up from the crowd as we can see who is in the lead. It is not the young bucks in the yellow currach who win, but four much older – much more experienced – men in the blue currach who coast over the line first. All four crews are cheered in equally as they return, after continuing a centuries-old tradition which has not lost its excitement or popularity in the twenty-first century.

Later, in the local hotel we dine on seafood chowder and Connemara lamb as the evening’s entertainment begins. Danny O’Flaherty, a local musician now based in New Orleans, leads a night of traditional music and song to the delight of the American tourists, the substantial local crowd and the Doyle clan. I recognise the melodian player as one of the young musicians from the céibh this morning. We start with a few ballads in both Irish and English from Danny, then the dancing begins. A young fellow, not more than nine or ten, dressed nicely in a yellow pullover and green Nike trainers, takes to the floor as an energetic reel commences. He dances in the more casual local style, arms outstretched at times to balance himself.  A few minutes in he is replaced by an older girl, perhaps in her twenties, with hornpipe shoes, sweater and leggings. None of your Riverdance costumes here: she is dressed for a night out in the pub. Her long hair flies as her shoes beat out a rhythm on the wooden floor. As she retreats back to her seat, a bloke who looked like he was coming back from the gents wanders onto the floor: obviously related to the young dancers, his black and white tap shoes are at odds with his ordinary shirt-and-trousers attire as his feet fly. His brother joins him after a time, a heavier-built chap in matching shoes; the brothers duel with their feet and lead the family members in a final flourish as the crowd jump to their feet. Brilliant.

 

As the wine and Guinness flows, two older local men take the floor to sing a sean-nós song or two. Connor, ever the young gentleman, asks the ladies of his family up for a waltz. Bernard, Annette, Connor and Ashling join the locals in a set of the Walls of Limerick. We dance and sing until midnight, and as we leave for the night there are still crowds in the bar. All Irish: the Americans have long since hit the hay.

good food show 2010: the verdict

We came, we saw, we drank, we laughed, we somehow made it home.

The Good Food Show 2010 was a success. We complied with all the rules except three: we didn’t need a trolley this year because our freebie-accepting days are over, I am pretty sure we all tried more than one wine per stall most of the time (possibly our downfall) and – in a 21st century update – I took photos of the wine labels I liked  the most instead of writing anything down.

We started with lunch in the celebrity chef enclosure – however, the dishes I selected were from a celebrity chef I’d not heard of before so I don’t remember his name… nonetheless, his cheese tortellini with vine tomatoes and wilted spinach were divine washed down with a cheeky glass of Nottage Hill shiraz (now when is the last time I drank Nottage Hill?).

The food stalls seemed fewer and the aisles wider. There were lots more areas for activities you paid extra for – the cheese-tasting class, the Riedel wine-tasting class, a couple of cooking classes, “The Coffee Experience”. So in all, less food stalls to trawl through. We managed to stock up on King Crisps and proper Chipsticks from the UK shop, and that’s about all we bought.

The wine stalls were dotted all over the show rather than corralled in one place, which meant the food stall touring was more like a cocktail party: get your glass topped up, wander, try some Peking Duck or some smoked salmon on a cracker, sip your wine, get your glass topped up at the next place, and so on.

I photographed Eileen and Kelvin looking serious and studious at the Riedel tasting class, while we sat under a bay tree “in the shade” as Mena said, having a little rest and sharing a packet of King.

We all got tattooed at another stall, well, all except me. The guy tried three times to get the transfer to stick on my inner arm and finally gave up because my skin was too smooth and it kept sliding off! But this is how my branded companions looked:

 In the end, we left before 6pm and I went for dinner with Eileen and Kelvin while Mena and Amy headed off before their train turned into a temporary bus service. Now, that sentence sounds very civilised until you realise Kelvin had to “help” me down Southbank to the noodle bar, holding me straight while I repeated things like “I really really love you Kelvin…. I am really glad Eileen married you… you’re great….” (you get the picture).

Dumplings, Peking duck and a bowl of char kway teow later I was escorted to my bus stop and I headed home to Orlando, our fine tradition upheld for yet another year. And this morning my head is not in any way as bad as it should be. Maybe I drank more water than I realised last night. Sadly, I don’t remember.

good food show 2010: in anticipation

OK. It’s 10.30am and I am ready for that highlight of the Doyle Women calendar – the Melbourne Food and Wine Show!

It’s a tradition that’s been in place since I came here in 2005. I am ready for the challenge.

The usual rules apply:

  1. Wear comfy shoes and layers – it’s a tough day;
  2. Bring an old lady’s shopping trolley on wheels to save us carrying all those freebies;
  3. Have a decent breakfast or lunch before starting in the wine tasting section;
  4. Do not make any serious plans for the evening;
  5. Don’t buy anything bulky too early or you will have to carry it all day
  6. Don’t buy the first thing you see – there will be plenty of opportunity to empty your purse
  7. Don’t spend all day in the first three rows of stalls
  8. No pamphlets, show bags full of tins of tomatoes and 50 cent pasta, or magazines
  9. Try everything you are offered (note: this applies only to food – see next rule).
  10. Only taste one wine per stall
  11. Less talking, more drinking
  12. Do not try to sound knowledgeable or even interested – the stall people can see you are drunk.
  13. Do not try to make friends with the other people tasting wine – this is wasting time.
  14. Don’t buy ANYTHING after the first half hour – you are drunk by then
  15. Ask the nice man to write the name of the wine down. You will not remember anything (much) 
  16. Do not stand Orlando up afterwards, but respect his kind offer of a lift home and try not to be a disastrous drunk!

I shall report back later. Wish me luck!

Good Food Show 2009

The proud family tradition that is the Melbourne Good Food Show came around again yesterday. Mena, Amy and I meet every year to spend a full day grazing at the food and wine stalls, and it is one of the highlights of the year.

We were in and getting our bearings by nine-thirty as usual. We had tickets to see Gordon Ramsay in the celebrity theatre at noon, and this year we were not going to miss it. We didn’t mind too much as the Australian Good Taste kitchen did not seem to be there this year – maybe because their food editor Michelle Southam is still on maternity leave.

I started the day as we meant to go on, getting a rum tasting in before ten o’clock. We had the outfits right (layers, nothing bulky, brave the chilly morning so you don’t have to carry your coat, comfy shoes). We had the bags right – capacious shopping trolleys that folded up into a tiny bag less than a piece of A4 paper. We had the rules right:

  1. Don’t buy anything bulky too early or you will have to carry it all day
  2. Don’t buy the first thing you see – there will be plenty of opportunity to empty your purse
  3. Don’t spend all day in the first three rows of stalls
  4. No pamphlets, show bags full of tins and 50 cent pasta, or magazines
  5. Try everything you are offered.

The food part, we have to say, turned out to be a little disappointing. Whether it was the result of the global economic crisis or something else, there seemed to be less exhibitors than usual. Many of our favourites were not there – no Aussie Good Taste kitchen, no Yumi dips, no Flinders Bread. In fact, there was little chance of coming out of there with something you could actually make into a square meal, unless you are happy eating chips and dips.

It seemed more than half the stalls were hawking jars of something: chutneys, jams, dessert sauces, marinades. Dukkas and spices also loomed large. Frankly, it got a bit same-ish by a couple of hours in. There was one central cheese stand with four suppliers on there, and nothing else dairy as far as we could see. There was a huge section in the middle of the floor given over to the Lindemans restaurant, charging inflated prices for dishes designed by the famous chefs in the celebrity theatre. Gordon Ramsay actually came out to the restaurant before he went on stage, and talked to the people eating his dishes. I was impressed by that – he didn’t have to – but what a disappointment to see how short he was, however perfectly formed.

2009 Gordon Ramsay

Gordon was a hit on stage too, with more than a thousand people filling the auditorium to see him cook. He could have filled the time waiting for things to cook a bit better though. His often lame attempts at humour, and sarcastic remarks about fellow chefs and other celebrities, got old quite quickly. We were there to hear about food – could he not have filled those gaps with more cooking tips and food talk? Ramsay repeated a few times that nobody had booked for Matt Moran who was coming up next, and asked if we could stay in our seats. But we – and most others it seemed – assumed it was just more sarcasm and attempts at humour, and left. Turned out there were less than forty people outside queuing for the next session. Matt Moran was going to be cooking for the first two rows of an enormous auditorium.

We ended up heading into the wine section much earlier than our rules allow, simply because we had run out of things to see in the food section. The wine tasting was hilarious and enjoyable as usual, as we ambled around tasting everything in sight and trying to keep to the Wine Section rules:

  1. Less talking, more drinking.
  2. Do not try to taste all the wines at each stall – try only one or two then move on.
  3. Do not try to sound knowledgeable or even interested – the stall people can see you are drunk.
  4. Do not try to make friends with the other people tasting wine – this is wasting time.
  5. No purchasing of any wine – by the bottle or for later delivery – after the first half hour as you are already drunk by then.

We bought nothing, tasted everything and, at one stage, blocked an aisle while the three of us wept inconsolably with laughter about something that we cannot now remember.

By five o’clock we were exhausted but happily unencumbered by very much at all except a few tins of cat food and one free magazine.

2009 before the drinking

Next year we will be there as usual, but it will not be the full day we have enjoyed for the past four years. The Good Food Show is slowly turning into the Sort of OK Food Show, and we shall trim our day accordingly. Perhaps we shall meet for brunch and just spend the afternoon there. It will still be a highlight of our calendar, but more for the company than for the show itself. Pity.