A Country Sojourn

I have a beautiful friend who always starts her emails to me with ‘Dearest Charlie’.  The email I received from her during the week let me know she’d enjoyed a wonderful weekend on a property in Cootamundra.  ‘I always feel quite soul restored after a sojourn in the country’, she wrote and I couldn’t agree more.

A few weeks ago friends invited us to their property about an hour’s drive from Gunnadah.  We spent nearly a week on the Liverpool Plains and found there was little of life in the big smoke we missed.

Life in Sydney is so much more frazzled and frantic but I’m sure some of it we bring on ourselves.  Take entertaining for instance.  For me it is something I love to do – there’s no better way to get to know people or celebrate friendships than inviting special people into your home.  But there is a procedure I go through every time and it starts about a week before the event.

1.              Recipe research and this involves looking up sites like Taste on the internet.   It moves to the bookshelves where I start pulling Delicious, Donna Hay and Gourmet Traveller magazines off the shelves and try to remember which of the 200 magazines that were neatly stacked but are now all over the floor had that recipe for warmed blue cheese with walnuts and parsley (Delicious Magazine, May 2009, Page 33).

2.              Two days later the menu is decided but now I do a cross-check with the guests for food allergies, personal likes and

Archie and Arabella

dislikes, and a mental scan trying to make sure I’m not serving them the same menu I served the previous occasion.

3.              Then the house must be overhauled.  It starts with crawling from room to room gathering up everything off the floor that has just been dumped there and trying to figure out where it all belongs.  Now I can vacuum and wash the floors.  Then it’s onto attacking every horizontal surface because some in the family see these as a justifiable place to empty your pockets, dump your bags, shopping, school mascot, football boots etc.  Now the surfaces can be dusted and the table polished.  Then the bathrooms are cleaned, the path to the front door is cleared of dog poo, the windows are washed, the ironing basket hidden and all paperwork and unopened mail is thrown into a box and pushed under the bed and not remembered until the ATO starts ringing.

4.              Two days out from the casual get-together it’s off to the shops to spend, spend, spend and this includes new kitchen equipment because every recipe these days seems to have some new essential you absolutely can’t live or bake without like souffle dishes or parfait glasses.

Alfie and the lambs

5.              The night before is spent setting the table with ironed tablecloths and napkins, cutlery that matches, wine and water glasses, candles and flowers – and yelling death threats to Alfie if he dares to go near that table.

6.              The day ‘of’ is spent cooking and it doesn’t matter what’s on the menu, this will not finish until 10 minutes before the guests arrive leaving only enough time for a quick change of clothes and an application of lipstick to hopefully give that ‘fresh look’.

7.              You appreciate that all of your guests arrive at least 15 minutes late giving you time to replace all harsh lighting with candles, (essential for the 40+ to only be seen under flattering lighting and that means eating in the dark), light the fire, place a clean hand towel in the bathroom, remove the teenage undies from the bathroom floor, and remove the teenage iPod from the dock and replace with your own sane mix.

8.              And then the doorbell rings and it’s on with the show that you hope appears effortless but in reality has taken a week from your life and without downing a quick Berocca you’ll have no energy left to carry the plates to the table.

But how refreshing are things in the country!  On one of the days we were there our hosts were having 25 people for lunch.  I had noticed in the days leading up to this event that no one seemed stressed about this and that the first five points of my ‘entertaining system’ apparently did not matter at all.  An hour before the guests were to arrive my host turned to me and referring to the menu casually asked, ‘so what do you think we should have?’  I sat frozen to my chair.  How could she be so calm?  I started to panic for her about how the day was going to unravel.  There was less than an hour to go and I thought for sure I was now going to witness something akin to a Masterchef pressure test but there was no acceleration in her speed around the kitchen and no heightened levels of anxiety as the minutes ticked by.

She went to the fridge and said, ‘oh, there’s some steak here and sausages too and I may as well cook these chops’ so it was all brought out and put on the kitchen bench and I started to do a count of all the butchered items to make sure it did add up to at least 25.  Then with a sound of delight she said, ‘oh look, I’ve got some olives here to start off with and there’s a few cheeses we can have with these crackers and the kids can have chips.  I know I’ve got some somewhere’.

She told me they were going to eat outside but they didn’t have an outdoor table and certainly I couldn’t count 25 chairs so I had no idea where she thought everyone might sit down to eat but it didn’t worry her in the slightest.  And as for the BBQ that was going to cook this assortment of items, it had been knocked up by the farmer himself and was on a bit of a lean but what was the problem!

I helped her put a simple salad together of whatever we could find in the fridge.  We found some bread rolls in the freezer so I put them in a sunny spot for a hastened thaw.  I rummaged through the cutlery draw and tried to find 25 sets of matching knives and forks and wrapped the pairs in paper napkins.

The last two steps of my ‘essential entertaining handbook’ were also ignored and so the whole entertaining for 25 set-up that would have taken all of my focus for at least three weeks was put together in less than an hour.

And soon the guests were arriving and some of them being members of the CWA, arrived with bundt cakes and other sweet things to solve the dessert situation and others brought canapés and others interesting salads so somehow or other, I don’t know how, lunch for 25 went from looking like a mighty fall from a massive cliff to being one of the most relaxed and enjoyable sunny Saturdays I have ever experienced.

It was a refreshing lesson learned in that it’s the people who are the focus and not the ironed table cloth or the clean hand towel hanging in the bathroom.  As my friend said to me in her email, ‘I always feel quite soul restored after a sojourn in the country’.

I don’t have a property or even an orchard but I do have a cumquat tree and it would be a sin to watch all this fruit fall to the ground so here is a recipe using a fruit that perhaps also grows in some sunny section of your backyard.

Marinated Spatchcocks with Cumquat and Lemongrass Sauce

Cumquats

Serves 4-6

Degree of Difficulty:  3/5

Cost:  Medium

Marinade

4 spatchcocks

2 tbspns palm sugar

2 tbspns tumeric

1 long red chilli

2 tbspns fish sauce

2 tbspns lime juice

Sauce

6 stalks lemon grass

1/2 cup lime juice

Spatchcock halves marinating

1/4 cup coconut vinegar – available from Asian supermarkets or substitute with white wine vinegar

4 tbspns palm sugar

small handful kaffir lime leaves roughly torn

2 tbspns vegetable oil

4 golden shallots

2 tbspns grated ginger

1 1/2 cups thinly sliced cumquats, seeded

2 long red chillies, sliced thinly

Take spatchcocks and rinse under cold water then dry with paper towel.  Remove wing tips with a knife or scissors.  Cut along the breastbone then divide into 2 halves by cutting out the backbone (these bones can be frozen to make stock at a later date).  Trim spatchcock halves and place in a shallow dish.

Place palm sugar, tumeric and tumeric in a mortar and pestle and pound to a paste.  Add 1 tspn salt, fish sauce and lime juice and stir to combine.  Pour over chicken and leave to marinate overnight or for 2 hours.

Turn oven to 200°C.

Place baking paper on an ovenproof tray.  Put spatchcock halves on baking paper and pour marinade over.  Place in oven for 30 minutes (for room temperature spatchcocks).

Trim ends from lemon grass and cut into 6cm lengths.  Bruise lemongrass by bashing with a mallet.  Place in saucepan with lime juice, vinegar, palm sugar and lime leaves.  Bring to a boil and cook until sugar has dissolved.  Strain and allow to cool.

Heat a small frying pan over high heat with vegetable oil.  Add shallots and ginger.  Stir fry for 5 minutes.  Add cumquats and lemongrass syrup; simmer 1 minute.  Remove from heat.  Mix in chilli.

When spatchcock are cooked, remove from oven, plate up and add sauce, some Jasmine rice and serve with some steamed Asian vegetables.

Comments

  1. Fantastic story, you’re such a talented writer!
    Loved it. I too myself LOVE a trip to the country.
    Very good for the soul.
    Keep up the blogs I’m loving them!

  2. Nothing better dinner in country around the wood fire in winter

  3. I am so glad to read about what you do prior to “entertaining” – I thought I was the only one!!!! I like the country version much better!

  4. Jean McDowell says:

    Having a one year old under foot and a very new york style galley (note very narrow) kitchen with no room to swing a cat, I think I’ll take that country approach you mentioned in this story – even though I am very much in the city! Enjoyed the recipe – I don’t have any cumquat trees growing in my NY apartment…but will source!

  5. Yes entertaining can take on a whole life of its own can’t it! It’s such a production but the masochist in me loves it too :P

  6. Thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving the sweet comment. I love your hilarious account of life before a dinner party. It’s definitely an art to make it happen quickly and smoothly!

  7. Nothing better than good food a little wine and good friends

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