08.07.2010 - 08.07.2010 16 °C
Bondi has long been the public face of the Australian surf culture that is so famous around the world and has cemented it's spot as place to see and be seen as well as surf and be knocked off. It is easily reached from Circular Quay on a bus which takes just over half an hour and passes through some nice neighbourhoods on its winding way down to the south coast. Bondi beach, we find, is not exactly a hive of activity on a midwinter's day but I imagine it would create good surf and people-watching opportunities in the summer. It is shallow and sweeping, cocooned in surf shops and cafés and at the moment it is also covered in rain.
We take shelter on Hall Street in a place called Gertrude and Alice Café Bookstore. Full of students and artistes drinking hot drinks and debating hot topics, it smells like Italian food and is stuffed to the dark wooden rafters with books. The walls are stuffed with volumes covering fiction, languages, philosophy, music, sexual identity, sci-fi and business and I could spend days with my head buried in the piles and piles of old editions, rare books and classic photography annals. The threadbare green sofa and wooden stools provide places to sit as you flick through the pages of our chosen subject, and the staff have no objections to you being there for hours. There are bargains to be had too - I see a huge book on ancient Persia for $10 and dig out one on Japanese Kanji for $15 - such things cost upwards of $50 elsewhere.
As Bondi Beach is little other than wet and deserted today we head for the next attraction over - the illustrious Bondi Junction shopping mall. Shopping is a permanent fixture in the lives of most Sydneysiders - celebrating? Let's go shopping. Had a bad day? Shopping will cure that. Lush malls in historic buildings, Victorian arcades, micro malls nestled in 60's concrete blocks, we have seen all of those but Bondi Junction is a more modern affair, quite minimalist and avant-garde. The decor, shops and food court cater more for young, rich and cool set of Sydney, many of whom reside nearby and don't have any need to frequent a job. Maybe this kind of place is your bag, maybe it isn't. But it is quite enlightening in many ways.
Outside there are more shops, mostly selling discount clothing and books and the clientele is a little more rugged: women 'of a certain age' gossiping in front of shoes shops and Chinese carrying baskets of wares back and forth. Things are also cheaper out here - in central Sydney a ladies haircut and blow-dry will cost you upwards of $100, believe it or not, whereas the alleyways of Bondi offer up a few clean, decent salons who will do this for $40. With the livelier chatter and social groups dotted everywhere this place feels a little less soulless than the Junction. Our bus back from Bondi also takes us through Paddington, another upmarket locale with more expensive shops and kept women in high heeled shoes but it also houses the interesting Australian Centre for Photography, which regularly runs free exhibitions by local artists, and the interestingly renovated Paddington Reservoir Gardens. If your after wandering among those with bottomless wallets and sipping posh coffee alfresco on leafy, quiet roads, this is the place to do it. And for those of you into more out-of-the way pursuits, a five-minute walk up the road lands you in King's Cross, centre of chocolate cafés, studio clothing and coin-operated "pleasure rooms".
Evening brings around a very special event called Tales and Ales, held at the Hotel Coronation opposite Citibank. This night is designed to showcase the ales of James Squire's Malt Shovel Brewery in Camperdown. James Squire was a convict sent on the hulk "Charlotte" to the penal colony of New South Wales and became Australia's first brewer after stealing the first batch of ingredients - he was let off with just 150 lashes (there may have been a barrel or two of ale involved there) and given permission to set up his business by the Governor. When he died he left behind a bustling and successful estate, some very good ale recipes and 11 children. We have gathered in his honour to partake in "Tales and Ales", $35 per ticket, one night per year. Upstairs at the Hotel Coronation houses a thirty-strong mish-mash of young professionals, independent creatives and ale-loving anoraks in the Mezz Restaurant, a cream and red bar room with leather seats, trendy lighting and a ye olde worlde wooden bar that could have come right out of an ancient rural pub.
There are six beers being showcased and each one has been matched with a foodstuff to complement it. Our main guide through this evening of alcohol and hors d'oeuvres is an American named Chuck, the bespectacled brew master of the Malt Shovel Brewery, and his assistant Tim, a dark-haired, keen-eyed Australian. Chuck must be beyond fifty; an averagly-sized man for his age with steel-rimmed glasses and a soft voice. He kicks off at half six, welcoming us all with a schooner* of Golden Ale and free raffle tickets. He has been doing this a few years, he says, and he loves it because "it allows me to force beer down everyone's necks every fifteen minutes" (this gets a big laugh). He is a rather charming man with a very dry sense of humour and gets us started by talking about the Golden Ale.
Asking us to swirl the beer and "stick your noses right on in there", he tells us that hops for this one come from the US and it is 30% malted wheat. It is quite refreshing but also rich and has a slight aroma of tropical fruit, of all things, and is matched deliciously with Sydney rock oysters in a coconut and cream sauce. The beer is a sort of hybrid - not quite lager, not quite ale, and is very enjoyable. Despite the "wine-snob" connotations of the matching process, we all begin to see what he is on about regarding the complementary aspects of the beer and the oysters.
"See, this is an organoleptic evaluation we are undertaking here folks, as opposed to a piss-up."
Our next beer is called the Sundown Lager and is very light and summery, and we enjoy it with vintage cheddar and blue cheese tartlets while hearing more from Tim about James Squire himself. He had owned a tavern of ill repute in London and was deported to Australia after being convicted of highway robbery, his boat docking in Sydney Cove in 1788. After setting up his brewery business he did a lot to help out members of the community in getting on their feet, donating money and land to aid families in need of work and becoming something of a local hero. He would never have brewed the Sundown, as there was no refrigeration in those times, but Tim attests that it is named after a phenomenon of his time - the men who were forced to stop work in the hot Australian afternoon sun, and would pass the time until the sun went down and they could continue with pints of beer.
The hoppy Pilsener that arrives at our table next is as pale as the Golden but with much more clout. It is definitely not a mild beer and is made quite exactly - Chuck describes how "foam nucleation neutralises the bitterness", so they use twice as many hops, but we are all too busy enjoying the spicy chicken satay sticks that go with it. "Always goes down well with a bit of Asian spice," Tim observes as several of our table go back for seconds of beer and chicken satay. "And compared with 15 percent wine, beer is only four or five percent alcohol, so it really is the drink of moderation," Chuck adds. I ask him what tempted him from the land of the free, home of the brave to be a brew master on the banks of he Parramatta River. He shrugs. "I just like good beer, I guess," he says wistfully, taking a sip. They do things properly here - copper kettles, small batches, so the flavour is just right."
The fourth ale is called the Amber Ale, much darker in colour than the others but with an uncanny sweet finish, and a taste not unlike oat biscuits. This is the original beer that Squire would have brewed with his stolen ingredients, and very nice it is too. It uses English hops and is paired with sweet and sour tempura pork which is crispy and delicate. Chuck has come round to our table and stops for a chat, asking how we are enjoying the evening and the beer. He is surprised to find Brits in the room and pleased that these ales meet with our approval - "England will always be the home of real ale for me," he says. He has been to England several and describes the beers native our little island as "heady". "But I should heave expected that," he concedes, almost to himself, "the closest relative to the hop plant is actually the marijuana plant."
Next is an IPA, and for those of you not in the know, that stands for India Pale Ale. This was the first beer exported to India in the early 1800's and in order to stop it going off during the journey it was brewed with higher alcohol and extra hops and allowed to ferment all the way to India, or at least, that was as good an excuse as any. It is paired with little lamb curry tartlets and by now everyone is chattering and laughing as they eat and drink. As Chuck picks up the microphone he grins. "This is why I love beer, it acts as a sort of social lubricant..."
"We swallow it!" calls a voice from the back.
It is made from very distinctive Kentish hops and Chuck gives us a nod as he mentions this - it is an earthy beer, quite robust and crisp.
Onto our last beer of the evening, the Porter, and rich chocolate brownies. The Porter style was named for the labouring river porters of London, who had a trend of asking their local innkeepers to blend everything they had on tap. The innkeepers soon got annoyed with this and the brewers picked up on a trend and started brewing to this style and so the Porter was a born - this one is not too stout, has a coffee-like aftertaste and looks not unlike coke with a head. The evening ends with the raffle, prizes and a little trivia quiz to check we were all paying attention and after picking up some specially-priced mixed six-packs we head home, rather merrily.
- Schooner - Australian measure, about two thirds of a pint.