Hello Again, Sydney

One Sydney-sider's experiences moving back to Sydney after a long absence overseas.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Our daily bread

What is your desert island starch? I mean, if you could only choose potatoes, pasta, rice, bread, couscous etc to eat for the rest of your days, what would you go for? My wife (like most Colombians) would plump for rice. Whenever we're stuck for something to eat, the first thing she does is fire up the stove to make some rice. As long as we have a packet of the stuff in the house, she feels secure in the knowledge that we will not go hungry. The first thing I look for when I've got the munchies is bread.

First let me say that pretty much anything fresh baked beats the supermarket brands. I'll never forget the baguettes we used to buy in Colombia, from the panaderia in the Torres del Parque. They'd still be warm enough to melt butter on when we got them home. And I can't resist the knot rolls sprinkled with poppy seeds at the average suburban bakery here. But for all the taste advantages you get from the fresh stuff, there's still the need for supermarket loaves. Blame it on modern life, but they're just so much easier to use for sandwiches or toast. Like all cliches, there's a measure of truth in the saying "the best thing since sliced bread". Yeah, I know a lot of bakeries will slice their loaves for you, but it's not the same.

In Colombia, the varieties on offer in the supermarkets were disappointing. Pan Bimbo - the most popular brand - is small and extremely sweet for my tastes. A lot of it is too light - maybe something to do with the altitude of Bogota? In Australia you get a massive variety. However, as you probably know, variety doesn't necessarily equate to happiness. Here are some of the not-so-memorable bread moments that we've had lately.

This first one is called "Up", and to be honest, we should have known better. The real problem here is when you go to the local corner store at about 8pm, you take what you can get. And if you're not into raisin toast or crumpets then this is about it. It's insipid, and devoid of all texture, and has the colour of recycled toilet paper. You could say that eating it was like eating cardboard, but that would be harsh on the cardboard. Still, it's packed with vitamins and minerals. Mmm.

After that nightmare, you'll probably reach for something completely different, such as Burgen. I think there may be an umlout over the u, but frankly, the bread doesn't merit an extended character set. I blame this one on the marketing department, brainstorming around a plate of sandwiches:
"More grains, we need more grains. Especially on the outside, where people can see them."
"Get R&D on it!"
"How about a German-sounding name?"
"And a smaller loaf, to make it look handmade and precious."
"All while cleverly cutting costs. Very sneaky."
This one is bland and really all the more disappointing for the promising packaging. Try the rye - you will laugh.
Lawson's (can't be arsed to find a pic) took a leaf out of the Burgen book, except they decided to produce something that looked like it was baked in a colonial wood stove, probably while someone was reciting the poetry of Henry Lawson - or maybe while the man himself was extemporising over an open fire. They've gone for a shape that is even more unorthodox, and you have to cut each slice in half if you want to fit it in your toaster. Pity all the poor lunchbox owners trying to take a sandwich to school/work. They've also eschewed the traditional plastic bag/bread clip and gone for a paper bag with a sticker to keep it sealed, which is good for about three openings. As for the taste, it's not dissimilar to Burgen. In fact, it could all be an elaborate marketing joke. I'm not buying it.

This one - Tip Top 9 Grain - is actually not bad, except that it's impossible to get it home without mashing it out of shape. Can a bread be guilty of being too soft? Maybe they should sell it in a box. The only other issue I have is with them bragging about nine grains. Brings to mind KFC touting their 11 secret herbs and spices. I'd actually struggle to come up with nine grains, and my tastebuds would certainly struggle to recognise them.

And finally, the one which we've actually found to be pretty damn good, our current favourite... Helga's pumpkin and 5 seed. See, now they've opted out of the whole "I've got more seeds than you" one-upmanship, and I think they've reaped the rewards. Plenty of grains - and they're believable grains, not ones that feel like they've been artificially inserted to give the impression of texture - and plenty of taste. Bring out the butter and Vegemite!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


Not sure if you'd call it a perk of my current job, but I spend a lot of time reading about soap operas. The two big local ones are Neighbours, set in Erinsborough, a fictional suburb of Melbourne:

and Home And Away, set in Summer Bay, a fictional beachside town:

Apart from the unusually high number of natural disasters, long-lost sibling discoveries and "problem" pregnancies that occur, the thing that strikes me as interesting about these places is the image they present of Australia.

Most of the US soaps (from golden oldies like The Bold And The Beautiful through to 90210, The OC, and more recently, Gossip Girl) are set in the upper echelons of society. In the UK, EastEnders and Coronation Street focus on the working classes. But in Australia, the characters are staunchly middle class. Not sure if that says something about who the audience is, who they wish they were, or simply who they feel comfortable watching.

Take it as given that all the residents of Erinsborough and Summer Bay are more photogenic than the the average Joe at your corner store. But check out the last names too. In Neighbours we've got Parker, Robinson, Kennedy, Barnes, Scully, Taylor... There are also some some Kinskis and Cammenitis, to be fair. In Summer Bay you get Stewart, Campbell, Hunter, Holden, Harris, Smart, Franklin, Phillips, Baker, Roberts. I was going to pull up a list of popular last names and show how divergant real Australia is from what we see in these shows, but damn Wikipedia, apart from Nguyen and Lee, it's actually not far off. Still, my point is that you'd have a hell of a time finding a suburban street in Sydney or Melbourne without an Asian or Mediterranean or Middle-Eastern family. You'd be excused for thinking the White Australia policy was alive and well in these shows.

Not that I'm advocating any kind of affirmative action. For a start, these kinds of changes often come off looking ham-fisted. Neighbours tragics still recall the Lim family who moved in to Ramsay Street in the early '90s. They lasted about two weeks - long enough to be accused of eating someone's dog when it went missing. And besides, I know soap operas aren't striving for verisimilitude. (Though there are people out there demanding more realism from their daily dose of escapism. "How come we never see the characters getting a haircut?" or "Why don't they ever go to the toilet?" are two of the most common gripes.) I understand that we're trying to get away from the real world when we watch these shows, but it's interesting to see what is deemed to be an appealing alternative.

And as Australia becomes more culturally diverse, I wonder if these shows will eventually stop attracting the desired market/demographic. What will the cast of these shows look like in 10 years?