After Melbourne's cold start to spring (winter coats and flannelette sheets still a necessity), Sydney's balmy sunshine acts like a tonic. Layers are shed and upper arms exposed. Colourful spring outfits beckon from shops along Oxford St, Paddington, and credit cards are just begging to be used.
The occasion is a girls' weekend in Sydney and several girlfriends and I have flown up from Melbourne to spend time with some friends who are now Sydney-based. First stop is a fortifying sandwich at a little streetside cafe on Oxford St, where I spy a piccolo latte for $3 on the coffee menu. I first heard the term "piccolo latte" two weeks ago when a colleague from my Sydney office mentioned it was his drink of choice. Suddenly I'm seeing the term everywhere (although I've yet to order one; it sounds similar to a macchiato. Can anyone offer me more information?)
Letting six women loose along Oxford St makes for an interesting few hours (one person is heard to mutter something about "herding cats") but we manage to loosely stay together and not do too much damage to the credit cards. We freshen up at home and then it's time for cocktails at Blue Sydney at The Wharf at Woolloomooloo. The dark-toned bar is cavernous, with strategically placed low tables, comfortable couches and screens, and old hardware from the days when it was a working wharf is still visible. The cocktail menu is extensive and makes a choice difficult, so we settle for a mixture of sangria, champagne and mojitos. When the bill arrives, we also make the acquaintance of the $12 "service charge", which is applied for "table service" (although this seems a misnomer to me, as customers are steered gently but firmly to tables and I did not see a general bar where drinkers could prop). Perhaps, like the $50 main, this is a Sydney trend that is yet to filter down to Melbourne?
Dinner is at The Pier Restaurant in Rose Bay. It is a delightful setting, with a long, narrow dining room boxed with glass windows on both sides, offering beautiful views over the Harbour. Everyone chooses plump Coffin Bay oysters for entree, which are perfectly sublime with a squeeze of lemon juice. Yellowfin tuna, barramundi and John Dory and some of the options for mains. Most of the table opts for roasted barramundi, although yellowfin tuna also gets a vote. The barramundi's crispy skin contrasts nicely with the soft flesh and is complemented by sweet roasted carrots. Side dishes of salad and divinely creamy mash are wonderful accompaniments.
Although I'm normally a sweet tooth, the four options on the dessert menu leave me cold, especially at $28 per dessert. We order another bottle of Dixons Creek chardonnay and continue our reminiscing about the direction our lives have taken since we graduated from university. We take it in turns to ask the table a question (about joys, achievements and regrets). One question makes everyone think hard. What single possession would you choose to save from your house? Husbands and children are ruled out, as they are not possessions, and it is assumed that you are wearing precious engagement and wedding rings and don't need to save them. To stop everyone from giving the same answer, photos are also deemed inadmissible.
After thinking hard, my choice is my collection of cookbooks and recipe clippings collected over nearly 20 years. It would actually be very difficult to save all of these from a burning house (I would probably need a trailer or trolley to do so!) but, hey, it was a theoretical question. Some of my favourite books, such as The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander and recent titles by Maggie Beer, Gordon Ramsay, Frank Camorra, Bill Granger, Donna Hay, Jamie Oliver and Belinda Jeffrey are all still in print and available, so they could be left behind. But what about my precious scrapbook of recipes clipped from The Age's Epicure section since the early 1990s? Irreplaceable. Epicure once ran a "My Favourite Chocolate Cake" section and I diligently clipped each recipe and snapped up the book version, 50 Fabulous Chocolate Cakes when it was published by Anne O'Donovan in 1995. I can still picture myself in the bookstore in Rathdowne St buying the book, which came with a Gabriel Gate desserts book as a bonus (Not all the chocolate cakes that featured in the newspaper made it to the book, so it was worth my diligence!)
Other cookbooks to go into the save pile are a mixture of the sentimental and the no-longer-available: the metricated version of The Margaret Fulton Cookbook (the first cookbook I was given when I left home); The Cookery The Australian Way (third edition) (which I used in my year eight home economics class); my hand-written recipe book that was a Christmas present in early high school (only my absolutely favourite recipes were ever transcribed in here, but perhaps I would prefer to forget that the first risotto recipe I was given used long-grain rice!); Margaret Fulton's Book of Chocolate Cooking (picked up for $2 from an op shop in the late 1980s and the recipes and photography have stood the test of time); Irish Soups & Breads and the Kilkenny Cookbook (both mementoes from a trip to Ireland a few years ago), the RuffArtz little black book of coffee and cake (an absolute treasure trove of good old-fashioned cakes and slices from country cooks, collected to raise royalties for a small volunteer arts organisation in Ruffy in north-eastern Victoria); my mum's original copy of The Women's Weekly Birthday Cake Book (it contains some of my favourite childhood birthday cakes, which did not make it into the updated edition that I have); and my personally autographed copy of Jill Dupleix's Old Food.
Just like my old friends, these books have stood the test of time and have so much more meaning to me than just a collection of ingredients and methods. As I look at the books, I recall where I bought them, why I bought them and what I made from them. I don't know why some cookbooks occupy a more precious place in our lives than others but I like to think that sometimes it's the memories, as much as the recipes, that is the special glue that bonds me to these cookbooks.