#58 Indulge in All Things Whippets

Confession time.

About 12 years ago, when discussing succession planning with the vet after my beloved border collie developed cancer, he recommended a whippet.

‘A whippet?’ I said, scrunching my face. ‘But they’re so… so… weird looking. Why would anyone get a whippet?’

How wrong can a person be?

So today I want to use this space to

#58 Indulge in All Things Whippets

The vet explained that they were ideal dogs because they were adaptable to any lifestyle and had few, if any hereditary diseases. No congenital hip problems, no bowel torsion, no slipped discs, no laboured breathing or snorting. In fact, he concluded, ‘if everyone had a whippet, vets would be out of business.’

I’m listening,’ I said.

It only took a little research to see his point and a few months later, my new whippet puppy, Ziggy joined the household.

Unbeknown to me, friends who travelled with me to pick him up were thinking along the same lines. That’s how  Ziggy’s brother Charlie, found a home too.

Our boys. That’s Ziggy on the left …I think

Almost twelve years later, the important thing we’ve come to learn about whippets is that they’re a law unto themselves.

Part Ferrari with a streamlined construction made for reckless, breathtaking speed,

Screenshot 2017-10-29 15.09.04

part cat, displaying a ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude to any attempt at training,

and endlessly comfort-seeking:

‘Being so thin and scrawny, I must be allowed on every soft surface in the house’

You called?


‘Well, you left the cake on the kitchen bench and turned your back for a few seconds. What was I supposed to do? Ignore it?’


‘The sun has moved. Either move it back or shift my bean bag a few metres forward, would you?’Beanbag to here!


‘Just because I’m called a sighthound doesn’t mean I’m a watchdog. If you’d wanted someone to bark mindlessly at nothing, you should’ve got yourself a yappy little terrier.’ 

Whippet hiding


‘Look, I have no doggy smell and my coat never needs clipping or brushing. Finding tiny hairs all over the couch is a small price to pay for the pleasure of seeing me draped like a statuesque Egyptian god.’


So recently, Charlie’s owners and I decided to indulge our weakness for whippets by attending a couple of Whippet shows in Melbourne.

A Slender of whippets

What’s the collective term for them? A Slender of Whippets? 

We’re not sure what the criteria are for snaring a prize, but they do look impressive as they’re judged.

The winners were all leggy and elegant and terribly skinny as befits every supermodel – but not a black one among them.

Whippets on Sat 1

We took comfort in the knowledge that the prized statuette for Best in Show was, of course, a black whippet:

Best in show

aka a replica of Ziggy and Charlie…


In human years, our two are now in their seventies and slowing down a tad. Although they live several hundred kilometres apart, every time they meet up they’re instant mates and both would secretly agree that there’s no better playmate than another whippet.

Perfect whippets

That’s Ziggy on the left … definitely. 

The strange thing is though, I don’t think whippets look weird any more.

In fact, despite his rapidly greying facial hair, his ridiculous bilby ears – instant disqualifiaction at a dog show, I’m told – his intermittent limp, and the odd tremble in his back legs, I think Ziggy’s the handsomest dog in the world.

Yes, he’s my very own velveteen whippet.

#57 Enjoy the Royal Melbourne Show

Despite a childhood growing up in regional Victoria, followed by several years living in Melbourne, I’ve never been to the Show.

This year, unexpectedly, my time finally arrived:

#57 Enjoy the Royal Melbourne Show 

In the ’50s and ’60s, it seemed the only ones who snared such an exotic outing as the Show were the kids with fabulously wealthy parents or indulgent grandparents who could afford the trip to Melbourne, the entrance fee AND the cost of the enviable Showbags. Or the kids who, lucky little sods, had a carnie for a relative. How I envied them.

They’d all return after the September holidays full of exciting tales of terror-laden big dipper rides or crazy dodgem cars and they’d be sporting the coolest toys that the rest of us could never have because they were only available in select Showbags once a year and only at the Show.

Toys like yoyos with red and white curly logos reading CocaCola on the side while the rest of us had to make do with plain, ugly ones that didn’t advertise anything, or hula hoops with glittery colours, so much more sophisticated than the plain-jane ones we had to suffer.

Show 1

                                                            …aah, the carnies

Of course, by the time I moved to Melbourne to study at eighteen, no self respecting, cool ’70’s chick would be seen dead at the Show. Not that I could afford it then either, but how naff would it have been to admit I wanted to go?

A few weeks ago, my sister and I were reminiscing about Bertie Beetles, those little insect-shaped treats of our childhood made up of the crumbs of Violet Crumbles coated in chocolate. We discovered, via the internet, that they can no longer be purchased in shops, but here’s the rub: you can buy Bertie Beetles once a year if you purchase a Bertie Beetle Showbag at the Royal Melbourne Show!

Foiled again, damn it!

But there’s a joy in growing older. Now that there’s no-one to impress and nothing much embarrasses me any more, I could jump at the chance to attend the Show when friends invited me to stay an extra day recently while I was visiting them in the city.

As I was telling my friend the Bertie Beetle story on the train, having just accepted her invitation to attend the Show the following day, she mentioned that the Showbag pavilion could be bumper-to-bumper with people sometimes (there’s a whole pavilion dedicated to Showbags? Really? Amazing!) and it might be difficult to get the Showbag of my choice. So I said it didn’t really matter if I didn’t get a Bertie Beetle show bag.

A stranger sitting opposite, a woman about my age who evidently overheard our conversation, leaned forward, looked me in the eye and said.

‘Yes, it does matter. You must get a Bertie Beetle Showbag.’

Aah, I thought. A woman who understands what a 50 year history of Showbag envy feels like.

As well as the Showbag pavilion, there were other things I didn’t know about the Show. Something called Pie in the Sky

Pie in the sky

which is apparently as well known a meeting place at the Show as Under the Clocks at Flinders Street station is in the city.

But then I saw the plaque about it, and it seems it’s a pretty recent addition…

Pie explanation

…it only went up in 1977

The joy of the Show is that there’s something for everyone.

The baby animal petting arena was a delight – though the animals wouldn’t stay still long enough for me to capture a good image – and the dog shows were … well, different, unusual, nice.

There was the sublime…

Show 3

the humorous …

Show cake

and the ridiculously wacky…

Show 2

But best of all, there was this:

Berties

So thank you, my lovely stranger on the train, for your understanding and encouragement.

#56 Try and Grow a Dead-Straight Carrot

Many a home gardener will tell you that producing a normal-looking carrot in the back yard patch is not as easy as those bags of soldier-straight, perfectly symmetrical, evenly sized, deeply oranged carrots readily available in every supermarket would have you believe.

In fact, even the odd looking “Crazy bunch’ carrots they promote in stores in an attempt to wean us off perfection are pretty impressive with their depth of colour and generous girth.

So I’ve come to believe that the perfect carrot you see everywhere is about as natural as a Stepford wife or a Venezuelan beauty queen.

Quite a challenge then to

#56 Try and Grow a Dead-Straight Carrot

I’ve attempted carrot farming a few times over the years, but the bitter disappointment of waiting months, only to harvest yellowing, mangled, bifid runts has meant that the allure of planting them every year has now waned into oblivion.

Of course, I thought I was following all the rules:

  • Soil: Rich, dense and well composted
  • Seedlings: Healthy looking ones in punnets from a reputable nursery
  • Feed: Regularly, with a high quality nitrogen-containing fertiliser
  • Water: Frequently and generously

Then I watched a gardening show on television about growing carrots and realised every single rule I’d followed was, literally, WRONG, WRONG, WRONG & WRONG.

So, um, starting again…

  • Soil: Rich, dense and well composted?

Ha! Don’t be silly.

Collect sand from the beach and mix it with so-so soil you have that’s a bit deficient in nutrients. Especially deficient in nitrogen.

Just make sure it’s light and fluffy and sort of trickly between your fingers.


  • Seedlings: Healthy looking ones in punnets from a reputable nursery?

Why do they even sell them?

Nope. Never grow carrots from seedlings. Doomed to fail apparently.

 Planting from seeds is the only way to go…


  • Feed:  Regularly with a hIgh quality nitrogen-containing fertiliser?

NO!
Not unless you’re after copious greenery on top and rubbish carrots underneath.
NO NITROGEN FEEDING


  • Water: Frequently and generously?
    …if you want to DESTROY them.
    So water when you think of it.
    Sometimes.
    If the mood takes you.
    Whatever.

Then there are a heap of other tips you need to follow:

Cover the newly-planted seeds to keep them warm, cosy and protected until they sprout:


Cull a number of the sprouted seeds early to reduce crowding:

Then discard the seedlings removed…

No…oo. My babies…


Cull again a few weeks later when growth is lush and magnificent.
Yes, again.

Carrot growth lush

And discard again…

This is doing my head in…


Until finally, weeks and weeks later, when a small orange blip is seen breaching the soil and you believe it’s time to harvest, you hope against hope that you’ve managed to grow a dead-straight carrot.

Perfect carrot

YES!!!

 

 

 

#55 Create Perfect Crispy Salmon Skin

If there’s one treat on earth that’s even better than crispy pork crackling – because it’s lower fat and doesn’t involve murdering a sociable, intelligent and highly trainable animal – it would have to be salmon skin that’s been baked to crunchy perfection.

(I mean no offence to all the salmon out there, but be honest, you’re not in Babe’s league.)

So for months I’ve been trying a variety of cooking tips found on an assortment of Google sites to achieve this, and after much experimentation using friends as guinea pigs (thank you all for suffering through various iterations) have finally hit the jackpot and am delighted to share the results, which have proven to be reproducible in my oven at least, right here, right now.

#55 Create Perfect Crispy Salmon Skin

It turns out that salmon skin nirvana is not too difficult to achieve:

  • Preheat a fan forced oven to 200ºC
  • Choose a salmon steak with a generous covering of skin. I’ve noticed they sometimes sell skinless salmon steaks. Unbelievable! I pray they don’t just toss out the skins…
  • Carefully detach the flesh from the skin with a sharp knife, just so…

  • …before scraping off all the fat and any residual flesh on the undersurface so the skin is glistening and streamlined.

  • Then cut to size and pat dry on a paper towel:

  • Next, season generously with salt, pepper and oil, rubbing in well, and lay the pieces on an oiled metal cross-wire cooling rack.

(It goes without saying that Murray River pink salt, freshly ground black pepper using an obscenely long pepper grinder and a virtuous brand of EVOO were chosen)

Now the following step is VITAL to success:

 

  • Place the racks with their compressed cargo onto a baking tray and into the hot oven on the middle shelf.

Then, if you cook the salmon fillet in a frying pan on the stove top at a low-moderate setting for 5 minutes on one side and 4 minutes on the other, this 9 minutes will be the exact time it will take for the skin in the oven to reach perfection.

Yes, really.

I invert the two little trays (as one) at the same time as I turn the fillet on the stove top, too, just for symmetry.

The salmon skins should be golden brown, straight-as-a-die and delicate crunch heaven.

You’re most welcome.

#54 Hold a Blog ‘Retrospective’

It was Socrates who held that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’, so as the fifth anniversary of my first blog entry approaches, it seems an opportune time to dip into the archives and ask a few questions about some of the #53 adventures undertaken so far.

What’s worked, what hasn’t …  and will the blog make it to #101?

So without wanting to sound too pretentious, here’s the latest activity:

#54  Hold a Blog ‘Retrospective’


Ah, the first blog post.  

I remember it well.  

A cold winter’s day back in 2012. Water in the bird bath had frozen and frost was still crunching underfoot as I…

Only joking.

Here’s the real review:

#1 Blog was titled ‘Start a Blog’.

How was I to know that within a couple of years, blogging and bloggers would become as obsolete as – well – Betamax video recorders? And almost as outdated as books. All victims of the relentless progression of technology like live streaming, Facebook, Instagram and their electronic offshoots.

A book about a blog? Sad.

But cursed with the trait of being a completer, I’ve persevered with this blog in the knowledge that at least it’s forcing me to undertake adventures I might otherwise have missed.

(Which probably answers the question ‘will the blog make it to #101?’)

#2 Blog ‘Create a Home Cinema’ melded nicely with #16 Blog ‘Attend a Major Sporting Event’. If there’s one thing a BIG screen is good for, it’s showing sport up close and personal.

So this is the view you have from the stands when you attend a game:

 …Just remind me again, who’s playing?

Whereas this is the view when watching from home:

…simply add ‘Surround Sound’ to further enhance the atmosphere

Combine this with #18 Blog ‘Make New Friends’ and watching the Olympic games, or the Melbourne Cup, or an AFL Grand Final (or election night for that matter) with friends, old and new, in the snug comfort of your own cinema in front of a giant screen is just the best.

#3 Blog suggested trying to ‘Cook a New Recipe Weekly’.

Why, I asked myself upon realising that this challenge was turning into a total fail, would I not just let a professional chef do that for me?

So it seemed sensible to merge this one with #17 Blog ‘Indulge in Life’s Little Luxuries’ and schedule a weekly, scrumptious meal at a café or a restaurant, preferably one located somewhere gorgeous, sampling something new…

…like at LuMi beside Pyrmont Wharf

#6 Blog discussed the day I became ‘An Extra in a Film or Telemovie.’

No doubt about it, the thrill of knowing that I was the blurry, shadowy woman glimpsed for 0.03 seconds AND my tuft of hair was highlighted for 0.01 seconds in the background of the Australian Telemovie ‘Cliffy’ has carried me through for years.

So much so that I put my hand up again recently to play an extra in a locally shot film called ‘The BBQ’ starring Shane Jacobson and Magda Szubanski which may or may not be released near Christmas.

I figure that a 0.05 second fleeting shot of me wandering around the showgrounds will constitute a Personal Best (which fits in nicely with #41 Blog ‘Take up a Sport’. Sporty people are always talking about PBs).

Alas, they wouldn’t allow us to photograph the actors or even the set, but as the day of the shoot was a real stinker, my aspiring thespian friend and I were given plastic cups half full of Kool-Aid to enjoy as a thank you for our services. Using a smuggled camera, we managed to take a blurry photograph of them. (As the drinks were lowly extras like us, they didn’t deserve to be in focus either…)

KoolAid

 

#10 Blog  was a call to ‘Keep Backyard Chickens’.

I may have taken this one a bit too seriously, as I’m morphing dangerously close to becoming a chicken fanatic.

But oh, the photo opportunities…

Dixie and her darling chicks

#21 Blog suggested it would be great to ‘Rediscover the Elegance of Fountain Pens’.

In reality, this turned into a coded blog to loved ones called ‘Guess what Someone would Love for her Next Big Birthday’ because here’s what arrived gift wrapped the following January:

AND with a gold nib. Most successful post EVER!

#35 Blog ‘Unearth Buried Archeological Skills’ together with #46 ‘Learn How to Nest’ touched on the topic of volunteering.

I learned a lot from these activities, resulting in the odd coins and bits of glass and small chips of crockery found buried in my own back garden becoming a source of great excitement. And it’s resulted in the creation of a new display of these little treasures outside:

But mostly I learned that having to turn up anywhere regularly is awfully like work.

So maybe I’ll take up volunteering seriously when I’m tired of retirement…

If there’s one thing Socrates has taught me though, it’s that only good things can come from a blog examined.

After spending quite a bit of time laboriously reopening and reviewing all 53 previous posts on my outsidethesquare101 website during this journey of self discovery, I received an unexpected message from WordPress, the host site of the blog, telling me just how successful my site is becoming.

And if WordPress doesn’t guess who’s been viewing it so much and thinks outsidethesquare101 is a booming blog, that’s good enough for me.

 

[With special thanks to LR for traipsing to the outskirts of Balmain to photograph the ‘Memory Lane’ street sign for me]

 

 

 

 

#53 Encourage Native Birds into the Garden

Who doesn’t have fond memories of the Rosella logo on the ubiquitous bottle of tomato sauce that was a staple of growing up in Australia?

It was the only brand my mother ever entertained using. In her case, it was for the taste: in mine, for the gorgeous crimson Rosella on the front.

So since childhood, I’ve cherished my tiny, brightly-coloured enamel rosella pin which the company used as a promotion back in the day when children didn’t expect their favourite toys to be endlessly interactive or need batteries or gigabytes to function properly.

Rosella Pin close up

And what a marketing ploy. More than fifty years on
and I still balk at using any other brand
!

But imagine if these pretty birds could be enticed to come into your garden every day. There’s a challenge:

#53 Encourage Native Birds into the Garden

So there I was recently, sitting on my front verandah drinking a mug of hot chocolate, when who should flutter by for a quick drink but this little beauty. 

Sorry, starling, but I don’t mean you…

One brief glimpse was not enough though. I wanted him to visit regularly, and I figured that the best way to do this was with food.

Mind you, an article published in The Conversation last Spring suggests that the jury is still out on the virtues or otherwise of feeding and watering wild birds. Do they become dependent on our largesse, resented in the bird-working world as seed-bludgers, expecting handouts on a platter? And does the bird population implode due to a lack of resilience should you go away leaving them with no food and water for a time?

Notwithstanding this debate, I raced out to my favourite hardware store and purchased a small bird feeder, filled it with wild bird seed and placed it close to the backyard bird bath. There was a lot of fluttering around it, but no takers. Was it because the treats weren’t being served on a platter for easy access?

No worries. There’s a waterproof material that can be cut to shape, spray painted and rimmed with clear plastic tubing to keep the seeds from falling off. Good old corflute.

Enter bird feeder Mark II and a lot of interested birds, first watching and hovering…

…before landing and enjoying:

It’s a magnet for sparrows, starlings and spotted doves who empty the feeder in no time.

Based on this early success, I bought a second feeder for the front garden this time, which is where I’d spotted the young beauty in the first place.

A kind friend made a real wooden base for it before I perched it on an upturned pot and waited for the flurry of activity and the return of my lovely rosella….

…and waited

and waited…

It’s been filled with wild bird seeds for over two weeks now, but not one taker. In fact, no interested party has gone so far as to land and inspect it.

What’s going on?

It is too wooden? The wrong colour? Too square? Not far enough off the ground? Does the fact that the seed is Homebrand® offend the birds’ sensibilities?

What must I do to entice you back, gorgeous Rosella?

I don’t want to sound needy, but I’ll do anything, buy anything, make any changes you desire.

But please come back.

 

#52 Bake an Authentic Austrian Torte

Aah, Austria.

How could I ever forget my one-and-only visit to this beautiful land-locked country?

Three of us on the obligatory rite-of-passage backpacking trip around Europe found ourselves in Salzburg at Christmas in 1974.

Mozart, the Sound of Music, golden cakes and tortes and strudels that reached out from shop windows to embrace us and our first ever White Christmas.

Magic.

But then life got in the way and I forgot all about the country and its delicious pastries until a few years ago when I was gifted a small slice of an Austrian Panama Torte, baked by my elderly Austrian neighbour Martha and kindly brought over by her husband Joe, as a thank you for the spare eggs I’d given them.

I was told this was a special-occasion cake, complex to make and based on a precious recipe they’d brought with them from their home country to Australia after the War.

Clearly this was a very special offering and after the first bite, it was obvious why. It was melt-in-the-mouth chocolate and almond nirvana. The future was now clear for me:

#52 Bake an Authentic Austrian Torte

I asked for the recipe a few times over the years, but with our busy lives, it never quite happened so I resigned myself to the memory of that cake rather than ever tasting the reality of it again.

Until one day, three months ago, Joe brought frail Martha over to my place – together with her handwritten recipe, translated from the original German, for the famous Austrian Panama Torte!

We sat in the garden as Martha haltingly talked me through the Byzantine instructions and I faithfully took notes and tried to make sense of the sometimes confusing translation.

2 ½ ribs of chocolate? Who measures chocolate in ribs?

Austrian cooks, that’s who and they mean horizontal ribs, not vertical

The almonds and the chocolate, I was instructed, MUST BE carefully hand grated. No food processor should go anywhere near them or this whole light and fluffy flourless concoction would come crashing down.

And the egg whites have to be beaten to within an inch of their lives but their folding into the almond/chocolate/egg yolk mix must be done with the tenderness of wrapping a newborn.

The oven door has to be propped ajar for the first 15 minutes of baking or the mixture might just refuse to rise.

this was serious baking

And yet it worked, and a newly minted, pleasingly light and fluffy cake came out of the oven:

Martha’s had a lifetime of practice slicing it horizontally to perfection – two cuts, do you mind – before spreading the chocolate butter icing between the layers, but my skills doing this tricky manoeuvre with such a mercurial cake were untested.

Enter, the ever helpful YouTube with instructions on how to measure the cutting lines before marking them with toothpicks…

… then gliding a fresh piece of dental floss through the cake just so…

… creating three (almost) perfectly cut horizontal slices.

This only left the chocolate butter icing to prepare and spread between layers and all over, before garnishing with lightly toasted almond flakes…

…and cutting into slices to share with family and friends

And the taste?