Tea and Ikebana

Back in Australia, and I must catch up with writing about the interesting outings we do.

There are many opportunities in Melbourne to experience events staged by different nationalities. Today I attended the annual Japanese-Australian Cultural Afternoon. Amazingly, the ABC set the scene for me (but only slightly, compared to the reality) by playing The Mikado on the radio as I drove there.

Japanese garden

Japanese garden at Glen Eira Town Hall

The event was hosted by the Rotary Club in the Glen Eira Town Hall – an accessible site with a small Japanese garden in the front (and apparently a permanent display of Japanese artwork in a gallery upstairs. I forgot to have a look). Funds raised are going to the children of Fukushima, the tsunami being still very raw in Japan’s recent history.

Around the hall were tables show-casing Japanese art, or flower arranging (with the artist carefully trimming chrysanthemum petals too), bonsai and food.

A1 A2 A3 A4 A5

People could practise ink-and-brush painting, calligraphy or origami, and at one lovely stall, we sat and enjoyed the peaceful and gracious tea ceremony.


We were served matcha, which I see is uniquely Japanese, used especially for the Japanese Way of the Tea, and is the best tea available. Having now read up about matcha, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t appreciate it more. It’s made from the finest tea leaves, steamed to keep them green, then dried and finely ground with even the leaf vein removed. It takes over an hour to grind up 40g of powder, and perhaps there was some wincing going on as we all gulped it down without thought. I was given a napkin with two beautifully coloured Japanese sweets to enjoy with the tea. Since I did not realise that it was part of the ceremony, I slipped them into my handbag because I thought they were plain boiled sweets that I would dispose of elsewhere, but, um, they were made of soft jelly and made an interesting amalgam with the other contents of my bag.

I’m not too sure that I will acquire the taste for a green powdered tea product whipped into a froth with a gorgeous bamboo whisk (see here: http://www.teavana.com/tea-products/tea-accessories/tea-tools/p/perfectea-bamboo-matcha-whisk).  Ok, the drink tasted like tea which is a minus for me anyway, but had the texture and appearance of green cappuccino, which is hard to wrap the brain around.

A7However the ceremonial production and serving was so restful that I could almost agree to attend another ceremony, and next time I would Do It Better. The woman who served my tea was kind enough to answer some questions about why the person who poured the tea turned the cup 90 degrees twice and why she did that too as she gave me the cup, and she explained that it was to ensure that I saw the beautiful side of the cup but did not drink from that side – the pattern is always to be seen from the other side.


At the fundraising stall for the “Japanese Eldery” [can’t you just hear it being said!  Perfect!] I was pressed to buy one of the wooden reindeer heads – red nose, tinsel and all. I said to the stallholder that I did not expect Christmas to be big in Japan, and she smiled and said, “Not big for Japanese but big for business!”


From  2 pm, we enjoyed staged entertainment, after a few short speeches by the MC (a Japanese Australian TV personality), the Mayor of Glen Eira and a representative of the Japanese government.  I mean three different people, not one multi-talented individual. Even the local member of parliament arrived later, so it was hugely important cultural event in the community.

The Yuakari Echo Choir began the entertainment – the only Japanese choir in Melbourne (perhaps in Australia). Lovely – and yet like western music done in Japanese.


Next came the Murasaki No Kai folk dancers – women in kimonos with scarves, cherry blossoms and fans.  The music here was oriental (but taped).


Then the masculine side – a Kendo martial arts demonstration. Kendo is very disciplined, exercising the mind as well as the body. Firstly, two youngsters showed us ritualised movements with wooden sticks, then the real thing – two well padded warriors duelled with bamboo swords. One of them won after a bit of polite thwacking and roaring, but I couldn’t tell how.  Maybe he hit The Spot, wherever that is.


Two women with the same surname (sisters? mother-daughter?) who had come out from Japan just for this day then entertained us. Saori played the koto, an instrument with 13 strings (strung over 13 moveable bridges, just to add complexity one imagines), using plectra on several fingers:



While she played, her relative Seifu painted a big canvas on the ground in elegant swirls. The canvas was later hoisted into the air so that we could see it at last, and was to be sold for further funds for the Fukushima children.


The highlight of the day for me was the Taiko Drums from Huntingdale Primary School. The children introduced themselves in Japanese and English – and as you can see from the photo, not all of them are Japanese.


They told us they had been practising their piece for 3 months – and their movements and sounds seemed perfect.  Their item was a rousingly vigorous conclusion to the afternoon.

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In Melbourne, the Long Black Experience

In New Zealand, I learnt about Short Blacks, and they were astonishingly short, practically pygmies.

Short Black (very)

Last night in Melbourne I avoided a Flat White and got intimate with a Long Black.  The memory lives on!

We were at the Wine Club of Melbourne for a coffee tasting evening.  For some in the party, this was definitely second or fourth best, but all agreed that the evening turned out brilliantly, and luckily it wasn’t all coffee:

Pre-coffee ice-breaker

Barista Rita Zhang of  Home Barista Institute showed us how to make good and bad coffee (some of us already knew how to make bad coffee), allowed participants to play with her coffee machines, and gave us tips on how to make sure that we get a good coffee next time we pay for one.

Rita and amateurs

She first gave us a fun quiz to show us how little we know about coffee.

Mostly wrong answers

Scoring categories out of 12 were

1 – 3: you need to do a Home Barista coffee making course.

4 -6: you still need to do a Home Barista coffee making course.

7-9: you know a lot about coffee!  You can improve by doing a Home Barista course.

10 – 12: you will have a job at Home Barista Institute running the course.

Robusta coffee has more caffeine in it than arabica, while being less palatable.  It’s used almost exclusively by the instant coffee market, that figures, and in the cheaper brands of ground coffee.  To check whether a coffee has robusta in it, check the packet – like GM ingredients and non-organics, if it’s not specified, it’s there.  Pure arabica, pure organics and non-GM foods all proclaim themselves proudly 🙂

I was thrilled to win a bag of coffee beans for knowing that coffee originated in the region of Ethiopia.  Luckily the only other person to shout out an answer guessed “Brazil”, which made me look even better.  However there were many opportunities for others to win a bag of coffee – the first couple who were brave enough to come and make coffee on the machines, or those who were quick enough in answering other questions.

Rita showed us first how to make a good cappuccino and a caffe latte, since those drinks are 95% of what the Australians buy.  She told us that her first memorable coffee experience on coming to Australia was buying a takeaway coffee from a well known Melbourne coffee shop.  She opened the lid on a whim to find that the barista had taken the trouble to form a heart pattern on top, though 99.9% of his customers would never even look, and when coffee art was not common.  As well as the coffee tasting superb, the temperature was perfect – coffee must be immediately drinkable, especially as the “crema” will start to deteriorate in 1 – 2 minutes.  Over-heated Mackers coffee – Not Good.

The coffee crema – oh, how I’ve been misled all these years (but what would one expect from the likes of n*stlé).  I learnt last night that coffee crema is not some white flammable powder some people add to whiten coffee, but the wonderful golden froth on top of a well-made shot of coffee.   I have to commend the Little Pygmy from New Zealand: it has started off with a a very long crema.

Where do the best coffee beans come from?   The answer to that is another question: where is the best wine made?  Mostly it’s a matter of taste; however the more popular coffees are usually from South America and East Africa.   A premium blend would probably include beans from Colombia, Brazil, Ethiopia and Kenya, though others might include different varieties as well, maybe even a little robusta for kick.

Rita reckons that a good coffee relies 20% on the bean, 20% on the machine and 60% on the barista.  She said she can make a very decent cup of coffee from poor beans, and can also show us how to make a disastrous cup of coffee from great beans.  We didn’t get to that part of the lesson.

What seems to be the secret? Obviously fresh beans, freshly ground to the right consistency will be a great start.  Rita talked often about the “1 to 2 Rule” – beans will last 1 – 2 weeks in a sealed container and even ground coffee will last well enough if well sealed (but not in the freezer).   Beans in the coffee machine will be fresh enough for 1 – 2 days, so cast a beady eye in the hopper at your local coffee shop if you are buying coffee on a Monday morning; chances are at the first 50 cups from there will be stale.  And finally drink your coffee within 1 – 2 minutes of it being made.

Tamping the coffee into the basket of the coffee machine or espresso pot is also important – quite a firm pressure is needed.  A successful “tamp” leaves the final used grounds looking like a firm chocolate biscuit rather than a slushy mess.  Put it another way, you only know you got that wrong after the event, and the mess is its own punishment.

The take-home secret for me was that good coffee is made at a rate of 30 mls in 25 to 30 seconds  – ie, the passage of water through the coffee grounds must be completed no sooner (to avoid weak or sour flavour) and no later, to avoid the coffee being burnt or bitter. Rita made coffee that was completed in 11 seconds (no crema, no aroma) and showed us coffee that had been made without refreshing the grounds – it had the aroma of an ashtray, off-putting to most.

All the milk used last night was heated with a milk steamer spout, which is an art on its own.  The spout must be placed just under the surface of the milk and the correct sound is a gentle pss-pss, not a loud busy spurting which causes weak coarse froth (another thing to listen for at the coffee shop). This starts altering the milk proteins, which gives milky coffee the professional taste and texture.  Towards the end, the nozzle is moved lower into the jug to froth the milk; final temperature should be no more than 65 degrees C.   The hand-test for 65 degrees if you don’t have a thermometer is “One, two, three, ouch!”  on the outside of the jug.

Then the jug is tapped and swirled to get rid of the large bubbles and incorporate the altered proteins (“stretching” the milk – till it looks like white paint).  When the milk has been “stretched” like this, it pours in like velvet and makes a froth that holds up throughout the drinking period.

“Stretching” the milk…to stretch the coffee

Making the cappuccino pattern is achieved by powdering the coffee with cocoa first, and pouring the milk in such a way that the froth comes out last.  Clever little hand movements are involved  – Rita added those with her hands guiding the amateur cappuccino makers.

Guiding hands

Many a coffee pupil was too wimpy with the milk “stretching” and ended up with a froth that collapsed:

Coffee art FAIL

There were other technical differences between cappuccino and latte.  I forget the details – a little more milk for the latte, served in a glass instead of a 180 ml cup, different depth of froth.  All measurable, but probably undetectable to the average joe-buying Joe.  They probably wouldn’t have a clue it all came out the same barrel, just that it’s served in different containers.

This didn’t come up with Rita, but Yahoo tells me that coffee is called “joe” because of an order put out by Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the US Navy in 1914, rescinding the officer’s wine bar and making a cup of coffee the strongest drink on board US ships.

When it was my turn for coffee,  Rita made me a long black – two shots of coffee in half a cup of hot water.  I had been secretly disparaging of the tiny 30 ml shots going into the cappuccinos and lattes; even with the half cup of hot water and 60 mls coffee, my cup was only 3/4 full, but it was exquisitely satisfying with a rich crema several mm deep. She told us how to make sure we get a good long black at a coffee shop – not to ask for a long black, but to tell the barista to take half a cup of hot water and put in two shots of coffee, as otherwise we will get one shot of coffee that has had an extra long blast of water through it, leading to a weak and burnt flavour.

The next person asked for a long macchiato.  This was way outside my experience, but in fact it’s merely a long black with a dollop of steamed milk “just to mark the coffee, the way they say it in Italian”, and decorated with a little froth.

One man went up to make himself a Flat White, which I had assumed was black coffee with plain milk: sommer coffee.  However it’s an Australian invention – steamed milk stretched down to no froth, with the top part of the milk held back so that the original crema remains on top of the coffee after pouring.

Today with the taste of last night’s coffee still in my mental gullet, I got out my stove-top espresso pot.  The 20% of the coffee experience for the machine can be discounted, since there IS no machine.  And the 20% for the beans counts for little too, as we buy whatever ground coffee is on special that week.   But the 60% for the home barista… ah, that’s where  we really fall apart.

Unless I can figure out how to set the gas cooker to make the water bubble through the grounds for precisely 25 to 30 seconds….

But, hey, I got the crispy chocolate biscuit effect from the grounds afterwards.  I_can_TAMP!

Well tamped grounds (deliberately broken into quarters)

For a Home Barista course (4 hours plus 2 hours practise) @ $150, see www.homebarista.com.au  

For the Wine Guild of Victoria, see http://www.wineguild.com.au  

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Random smiles in Auckland

Interesting conversations were overheard with children in Auckland.

As well as the boy who entertained us in the Sky Tower lift, there was a different boy who was not in the least fazed by the concept of being up in the clouds.  He was interested in figuring out how he could be so big in comparison to the tiny bus below.

Kids… not born with fear

However the conversation that made me smile the most was at an Auckland shopping centre where a short person spotted this sign:

“Look, a wolf!” he said.

His mother tried gentle education, “No, it’s LIKE a wolf but it’s a dog.”

{??? Our kids know more about wolves than dogs? I thought that kiwi birds were about the biggest form of wildlife in New Zealand.]

“It’s a wolf!”

“No, it’s like a wolf, but it’s a dog.”

“It’s a wolf.  And look, there’s a candle!”

The jaded mother had learnt her lesson by now.

“Yeah, a stinky candle.”


Red cars in New Zealand are the comedy prop, apparently.  I’ve posted a couple already.

I enjoyed this car number plate, particularly when I saw the rest of the car.

Probably empty (sour grapes)


Just me perhaps? This company name made me smile.

Carcel parcels… or castle pastles?  Depends on your accent

I love Antipodean humour.  I hope it’s always meant to be humorous.

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Post 10: Up in the Long White Cloud

Every day in Auckland was an opportunity for a wonderful outing, easily accessed by public transport.  Commercial ventures were rather expensive, but there were many walks to do at no charge, many (48) volcanic cones to climb if one was so inclined, and many parks to visit.

The Sky Tower is almost always there in view, whether from Rangitoto, Mt Eden, One Tree Hill (another One Tree Hill… and this time without a tree, since it was cut down by a vandal….), Albert Park, Devonport, Birkenhead.

Sky Tower – from various sides

As with Cape Town’s Table Mountain, the Sky Tower tells you where you are.  And if you see the view below, you are there.  And a couple of times, I DID go there.

Under the Sky Tower

As soon as someone thought of building a 328 m high tower, they thought of making money from it.  In an effort to use our free coupon for a buy-one-get-one-free deal worth $28, T and I paid $11 for parking.  However that day, the tower was in the clouds, so we decided not to continue up to the top anyway.  It was a day very much like this:

I ended up going up in the Sky Tower later with my ex-Harare friend Dawn, and it was wonderful to reconnect over lunch after so many years.  I think our previous lives were very staid compared to being up in the clouds, though.

More adrenalin than I needed without even stepping outside the tower

It felt remarkably precarious being so high up, with a clear view to the ground so many hundreds of metres away.  The top of the tower can apparently sway 1 metre in the wind if it’s very strong, and I could almost feel it… or perhaps that was me swaying.  I was shocked  to see this sign:

That no-floor sensation

It wasn’t as reassuring as they had planned – it immediately made me feel nervous about the non-glass floor.  After all, how can one expect a 38 mm thick lid of concrete stuck round a pillar to stay up in the air?

But worse was to come.  At least three times in our visit, one or other dangling figure appeared outside the windows (yes, I said outside) and then vanished from view, hoping to end up on that little red target some way below.  RED, such a useful colour, no?

Fly in the spider’s web

….a long way down to the landing zone

You might like to watch a You Tube video of someone called Steve, though in the end the video didn’t really give the sense of someone falling at 85 kph for 11 seconds, if one is still watching after the agonising few minutes of getting ready to jump. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MVtkhavdKF0

I had had a dream the night before we went up the Sky Tower about the lift crashing to the ground, killing all aboard.  We made it up safely.  We made it down safely.  On the way down, there was a young kindergartner with us acting out something from TV as we went down, looking through the glass bottom of the lift and calling out, “Argh, I’m going to die, di-i-i-i-eeeeee….” until he got fascinated with the counter-weight (his observation, not mine).  We were so taken with him that we forgot to open the lift doors at the bottom, and the lift rose with us for another attempt.

Evidently nothing happened to us.  Sometimes a story has no punch line.

Thank goodness.

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Post 9: Elephants of Auckland

I realised after a few days in Auckland (fabulous double-harboured city, by the way, with a west coast within a few km of the east coast, in fact about 1 km at the narrowest point) that there is a surprising fixation on elephants.

I’m trying to picture without success a herd or two of elephants roaming the Coromandel Peninsula.  In fact, the biggest specimen of moving wild-life I recall was a bluebottle fly. I heard bird calls, and saw some lunatic drivers on TV, but in real life… nothing that a rolled up newspaper couldn’t handle.

My first Auckland elephant was an Indian elephant called Rajah at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.  Rajah was a huge surprise, as I was pottering around the display of Maori artefacts at the time.

The immortal Rajah

It seems that Rajah was imported in 1930 as a ‘tame’ elephant to be used for giving rides to visitors to the Auckland Zoo, but Rajah thought very little of this idea.  In fact, he was so unimpressed with the idea that he had to executed by a keeper as he became more and more dangerous 😦   After 7 months of stuffing, he was presented to the museum for public display, but even they couldn’t find a use for him until recently.   Oh, Rajah, if only you had been left in the jungle.

Within 10 steps of Rajah was his tiny cousin, among a display of early 20th century NZ childhood memories. This little elephant was evidently much-loved, in contrast to Rajah.  His trunk was almost loved right off, I see.

In the same museum was a little award made to Sir Edmund Hillary, NOT for climbing Mt Everest.  I forget what he did to earn this – as you can imagine, it was rather less memorable than the big climb.

Hillary's trophy

Outside the museum, one of the local banks has a display of ellie-banks (as opposed to piggy-banks) to remind us in light of the Christchurch earthquakes to save and take out insurance for unforeseen disasters.  Though it beats me how one could not see the Christchurch earthquakes coming – once I read about the unstable tectonic plates that cause one of NZ’s islands to be steadily moving beneath Australia while the other moves on top, I saw an earthquake in every leaf flutter or stomach rumble.  Hooray for the apparent stability of Melbourne.

ASB elephants

Note to elephants wishing to emigrate to New Zealand – trunks seem particularly vulnerable in this climate.

Finally, an African elephant and her calf made it to Auckland.  Here is the work of Zimbabwean sculptor Morgen Runyanga.

Mother and calf

Somehow, I never saw a kiwi.  Perhaps I’ll have to go back to Africa for that.  Good old Kiwi Shoe Polish, I miss you.

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Post 8: Quirks and quiddities of Nelson, New Zealand

On the eve of flying to Auckland in the North Island of New Zealand, I am recalling what I enjoyed about visiting the South Island.

I flew to Nelson via Christchurch.  It seems to me only those that live in New Zealand, or have visited, know where their towns are, so here is a map taken from http://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/oceania/nz.htm

New Zealand is apparently the fourth best of the economically free nations (after Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia, so says http://www.heritage.org/index/ranking).   Amazing, ain’t it?

And yet, in despite all the efficiency and good economy, New Zealand seems to be a really nice, almost old-time place.  Here are a few shots of the highlights around Nelson, which is the centre of the country.

Climbing was involved to photograph this

There were gentle touches of humour, often involving red vehicles

Clock drove up minutes before

Trees for sale, I think. On the way to Rabbit Island

It seems that it’s forbidden for citizens to be hurt.  First the city fathers cut down the biggest tree in town as it was about to shed a branch or two.  They made a tree stump worth visiting, but with a kill-joy sign on it.

The Big Tree, or what's left

...but visual fun only

Lush beautiful gardens, both private and public:

Random Richmond Garden

The day before the Rose Show at Broadgreen House

Rural extras:

An inquisitive Shetland

Typical rural post box

and the lovely sea views.

Cable Bay

Finally, only in New Zealand.  I have no idea why this happens…..

Bras on a fence in the middle of nowhere

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Post 7: One Tree Hill

I’m writing this quickly before I get stiff.  Today we climbed the 1000 Steps again, and it was even harder than the first time.  I counted all the slabs AND steps and got to 906… or 912… Oh, 900 and something – I was just so pleased to see the top of the climb that I forgot to remember.

Up at the top; random tourist starting down

We added a bit of interest to the initial 800 m climb from the gate to the steps by going off on the Nature Ramble, which sounded so innocuous.   It started off quite well by going down.  Uh, oh, what goes down will have to go up when it comes to the 1000 Steps.  And eventually there was just a bit too much nature:

Path with added interest.

We were glad to have been there after the tree fell.  And we were also glad to rejoin the normal path soon after that.

As before (duh!), the steps and balustrades went up endlessly, but beautifully.

Up, up, up

But, as I said, we were eventually once again at the top, with no intention whatsoever of doing the climb again today, despite earlier enthusiasm.  However we had to extend ourselves a little more than last time, so we decided to go to the previously scorned One Tree Hill.  And this is where I learned a well-kept secret:

Yes, a road

This is a road about 100 m from the top of the 1000 Steps.   No one told me!  Having done the climb, though, I have to say that it gave me more satisfaction than driving to the top and looking down.  Or so I have to say now.

On to One Tree Hill, which was a mere half km trudge from where we were.  Not much of a Hill (though it looks out over Ringwood/Mooroolbark, so I guess they think it’s a hill from down there.)  Come to think of it, ‘One Tree’ is also a misnomer.  Was it this tree?

Kel holding up One of the Trees (and wearing a not-getting-lost-at-sea shirt)

Or was it this tree, or this one?   Oh, take your pick.

Can't see the Tree for the wood

Lovely quiet picnic area though, with the usual Australian cleanliness

The picnic spot fairy had just been, perhaps

Picnic spots require picnic food.  We were lucky, we had our sarmies and water.

"Ordinary food in an extraordinary setting"

Come to think of it, they weren’t ordinary sandwiches either – cheese, lettuce and home- grown tomatoes on chia-seed bread.   Even more delicious for the eating having been delayed till 3.10 pm.

The next photo is for Jean …..

Only for literate hikers

…. we left the park early enough not to be locked inside.  I suspect that a dressing-down from an Australia park ranger would probably be much more intense than the one we had from the Paarl Nature Reserve men last year.  The memory of being at the top of one of the Paarl Rocks at sunset was well worth the embarrassment of being caught by the Park Rangers after dark, but I bet that no memory would overshadow an Australian talking-to (remember that while some early Australians were Convicts, others were Prison Wardens).

[http://neonectar.com/climbing_paarl.htm for non-Bolanders, and ahem, the view behind the climber on top of his Paarl Rock where he got via a vertical climb with rope and crampons (it IS crampons, hey, not tam…. no crampons) is of the little Paarl Rock we walked up, assisted in the step parts by chains.  No big deal, but much more strenuous than getting from the 1000 Steps to One Tree Hill.]

Finally, and completely off the point – a  cheer today for the Zambian Chipolopolos, the underdogs, who have just lifted the African Cup of Nations soccer trophy.  I don’t follow soccer, but I remember a Zambian friend writing to me 19 years ago to say that the entire soccer team had perished in a aeroplane crash in Gabon and that the nation was in shock and mourning.

It seems so fitting that the Zambians played and won just a few kms from the spot where their compatriots died, and that they felt inspired to amazing victory by their memory.  It reminded me so much of Andrew Kelehe winning the Comrades Marathon in 2001 in memory of his baby daughter who had died on Valentine’s Day.                                              http://www.iol.co.za/sport/up-run-is-different-race-kelehe-1.512819

How uncanny – tomorrow is Valentine’s Day.  May you all have good loving memories and a wonderful day.

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