On the border of climate change
I once had a recipe that called for fennel seeds. The instruction for how to prepare them was: ‘Roast carefully in a hot pan until they are the colour of a grizzly bear.’
It was a book of Greek recipes, and as I stood at the stove in our kitchen in Canberra, the cookbook held open with a saucepan on a side bench, I was stumped. In what world did anyone think this was a useful way to impart the degree of toastiness for these seeds? Besides, do they even have grizzly bears in Greece? I doubted it. And yet, on that sunny spring afternoon in 1996, preparing lunch for Tanya and for friends who had come to visit, I was transported to some imaginary Greece where a woman wreathed in black was bent over an open fire, instructing her daughter. And the seeds, the woman is saying, should turn the colour of a grizzly bear. And it made perfect sense.
My knowledge of Greece was limited to a trip we had done a couple of years earlier when we had spent a few days in Athens and then a week on Santorini. The weather had been perfect, the sky blue, the water greenless, the landscape strangely familiar. We swam in hot springs and in the ocean. We sat on donkeys and climbed a cliff in a terrifying ride up a narrow track with a sheer drop on one side, as the donkeys insisted on pushing past each other to take turns in the lead—three donkeys momentarily abreast on a track two donkeys wide.
We ate at a restaurant at the top of the cliff, on a big balcony that looked out over the ancient world.
My idea of the woman toasting fennel seeds comes entirely from this trip because I had seen exactly that woman outside this restaurant, an old woman dressed head-to-toe in black, bent double over a small open fire, grilling morsels of octopus and squid and fish and chicken, and fennel seeds for all I knew.
The seeds I had were bought from our local Woolies, and once they had achieved peak grizzly bearness, they were to be sprinkled across a dish of halved peaches doused in red wine and vanilla scraped from a pod, all baked to softness in a slow oven. The peaches I had picked that morning from a tree in our backyard and so I was feeling very earth father. Our yard also had a plum tree, and an apple tree, and some herbs too, none of which we had planted but had inherited when we bought the house. It was a little ex-govvy in Downer, one of the older Canberra suburbs north of the city. It was our first house, and Tanya was pregnant with Noah.
If you were to ask me to write a cookbook, I would be happy to do it and I already have a name for it: Winter Food. Sometime in the last twenty years I decided that I prefer the food you tend to have in the cold months, hearty dishes and comfort food, and my cookbook would be about that. Slow cooked lamb shoulder, stews and soups, thick crusty bread, root vegetables baked or roasted. Stewed desserts and red wines, liquoricy and syrupy liqueurs afterwards.
This mightn’t sound like a major revelation, but for someone who grew up on the coast of the world’s biggest island and spent the first years of his life at the beach, in the ocean, in shorts and swimmers and t-shirts and sandals or thongs, and mostly bare-chested, and who turned brown in the tropical heat, it is an unforeseen transformation.
I simply don’t remember winter when I was a kid.
Back then, summer was the perfect time, hanging out on Sydney’s beaches. A paradise. It was a time when heat was desirable, and the sun was a harbinger of health. To tan was to glow. I was a thin boy who ran fearless but terrified into the waves and rode them back to shore and did it again and again for as long as my mother would keep me and my sister at the beach.
In that life we ate cold meats and salads. Fruit, lots of fruit. Our back fence was overgrown with passionfruit vines. The lady next door had pawpaw and bananas and strawberries, lettuce and tomatoes. My mother would pick us up from school and she would have mangos and cold cooked prawns wrapped in newspaper from the local fish-and-chip chop to feed us on the sand, and we would throw the prawn heads to the seagulls. On other days, we had fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, deep fried and battered, and somehow that was a summer food too. The hot, salty crust and the white flesh underneath.
It seems right, as you get older, to prefer winter to summer. Things ending. Light fading. A chill in the air. But that isn’t it.
Since we have been in Nice, I have noticed the same inclination, this leaning into winter.
We arrived in summer, with the temperatures in the thirties and our windows open at night to coax any sea breeze in, and as beautiful as it was, as appropriate as it was in this part of the world, the Cote D’Azur, I was not-so-secretly hanging out for winter, for the heat to dial down, to break out the overcoats and scarves.
I say all this, but to be honest, there is a limit to my new infatuation with coldness, I know: I don’t want it to get too cold. I am not hankering for a Scandanavian winter, or even a London one. I could live without snow entirely, as I discovered when we lived with it in Washington D.C. All very lovely until you have to shovel it every day and watch it turn grey in the gutter and slip on it. Snow is just pretentious rain.
Garrison Keillor has a nice piece about cold weather, though I don’t agree with it. He doesn’t even rate as cold the coldness of Washington DC that I am complaining about:
Severe cold weather gets a person’s attention and encourages intelligent adaptation to real-life conditions by threatening genuine misery if, for example, you venture outdoors in your bloomers to tinkle in the shrubbery. …The temperate climate of D.C. encourages dreaminess and dramatic posturing and blather. If elected officials had to walk out of their warm homes, get into a freezing-cold car, start it, and drive on icy roads to the Capitol, it would give them a better sense of the real world.
I’m more with TS Eliot who declared April to be the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
It’s a northern hemisphere perspective, but it is spring that is cruel, not winter.
Winter kept us warm, he writes.
I want the days cold enough to justify a coat and boots, maybe gloves, with the nights encouraging ragùs and risottos and the odd mulled wine.
Nice is obliging, moving into daytime temperatures of the mid-teens and colder at night. We even went so far as to jump on the train last Friday and travel to Ventimiglia, a market town just over the Italian border, with visions of stocking up on their reasonably priced vegetables and meats, but all we came back with was some donuts.
We’ve been watching the ABC series, Fires, and reminding ourselves of what climate change is costing us. We’ve been watching the talks in Glasgow, despairing at the inability of political leaders to rise to the challenge: to even acknowledge it in the case of Australia’s coal-flecked representatives.
There are signs of hope
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers--
but as I said in a recent piece, conservative independents aren’t going to save us, none of the well-meaning incrementalists will if they continue to ignore the underlying economic order and its relentless, extractive destruction.
Individual commitment to less meat, or fewer plastic bags, or to draft-proofing your home is not going to save us. By all means, do all the things, but understand where the real problem is.
Sixty-three percent of all carbon emissions have happened in the last forty years.
The richest 10% are responsible for half of all carbon emission.
A hundred companies are responsible for 71% of all carbon emissions.
Ventimiglia was an eye-opener: less the delightful bucolic market town the tourist pamphlets suggest than one of the many frontiers of global capitalism, of desperate immigration and hand-to-mouth subsistence, catering to those of us in more privileged circumstances. Wandering the market stalls were dozens of young men from North Africa (presumably) hawking handbags and belts and purses and fake, hand-carved toys. In the train stations we pulled into as we skirted the Cote D’Azur, travelling to and from, homeless people were wrapped and huddled on the station platforms in the smaller towns—not Monaco, not Cannes—probably wishing for warmer weather and any sort of food.
We all live in capitalism and inevitably and unavoidably participate in its harms. Its benefits too, but its harms.
We live in a time when our children face the possibility of never experiencing a normal winter again, where extremes and unpredictability and danger are the order of the day.
I am writing Winter Food in my head, composing an index that goes from arborio rice to zucchini flowers.
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
I don’t know how to end this. I don’t know how this ends.
Yes, I agree with you about winter foods.
I'm also feeling quite hopeless about the outcome from Glascow. We've been betrayed by our politicians.
You seem melancholy Tim, and it’s a perfectly reasonable response. I feel the same watching the ending of COP26 and the disappearance of much of my hope that something real would be done and the future start to look more promising. I watched the new BBC series with Brian Cox “Universe” on ABC, which is rather dumbed down but nevertheless leaves you with the awareness that life is incredibly precious and, as far as we know, Earth is unique. In such a universe our prime responsibility is to life. Our systems and our politicians seem intent in snuffing it out for no other reason than short term greed. It makes me despair…