Our visit to Australia was admittedly minimalist. We took a country that is almost 8 million square miles and reduced it to the 550 miles from Sydney to Melbourne. How dare we?
Yes, we saw a few kangaroos on our little road trip, but where were the cuddly koalas? What about the cute little joeys? We needed to add more authentic Australian wildlife to our itinerary. And while we’re at it, why not throw in some waddly little penguins for good measure?
Why do we love penguins so much? Is it the funny walk? The tuxedo? Their excellent performance in Madagascar? I can’t say for sure, but penguins sure are fun.
They’re also very reliable. Every night at sundown, the penguins of Phillip Island, which is about a two hour drive from Melbourne (driven with amazing good humor by our friend David Morley, who, with his wife Trish, made sure that we felt very welcome in Melbourne), put on a performance that is hard to beat. They emerge from the ocean in groups of twenty or so, mill about on the beach for five or ten minutes, and then waddle off to their burrows, which can be quite a distance away. There are around a thousand penguins in the colony there, and on any given night you can expect at least half of them to come ashore, wave by wave, like the Allied landing at Anzio.
At this time of year the penguins are molting – they drop their feathers and grow new ones. Once they drop their old feathers, which provide the waterproofing they need to survive in the water, they have to stay on land for a few weeks until the new ones grow in. As a result, at this time of year penguins stuff themselves so full of fish that they can barely walk. It seems, well, unseemly, to laugh at fat penguins, but it’s hard not to. Some waddle up onto shore and then promptly fall over like bowling pins. Others will take a few steps, stop, and maybe take a quick nap before continuing on their way. Some are so fat that they have to swivel their hips to achieve forward locomotion. Watching this goofy march of the penguins has to rank up there with some of my most memorable moments in wildlife.
I also got to cuddle a joey. On the way to Phillip Island, we stopped at a small wildlife sanctuary – well, kind of a petting zoo –where Janine got to pet a koala and I got to hold a baby kangaroo named William.
I am ever so slightly ambivalent about letting animals that should be wild get too close to humans, but I also see the educational value, especially for kids, in this approach. Anyway, little William settled into my arms for a good long snuggle. At one point he even started absent mindedly licking my finger. Now I can say I watched engorged penguins collapse on a beach and I had my finger licked by a little baby kangaroo. Viva Australia!
And now on to the gluttony portion of our program.
Before all these zany wildlife encounters, we did our best to seek out one of those gastronomic meccas that seem to dot the city. It was one of those days when the malaise had set in. We were sitting around staring at each other without the will to do much of anything. We didn’t know where to eat or how to get there. This may sound really silly in the internet age, but I’m here to tell you that it happens. Then I summoned something from deep within, hearing the faint whispers of that inspiring inner voice telling me that there’s pork belly just over the horizon with our name on it. Someone is emulsifying or sous vide-ing just for us. There are microgreens picked by monks drizzled with olive oil pressed with stones quarried from Roman ruins and rowed across the sea by Vikings. It was all out there waiting for us. We just had to lift ourselves off the couch and find it.
And find it we did, in the hipster neighborhood of Fitzroy, which once was known for mayhem and prostitution, but which is now where some of the city’s best food is found.
After cross referencing about three different tram maps, I figured out how to get out there. (By the way, for all its charms, Melbourne’s transit system is deeply inscrutable. It’s unclear where to buy transit cards, they charge you six bucks for the card and then you have to top it up with value, it’s mystifying when you have to tap on and tap off, and the tram maps are really lousy. And a single ride is $3.75. Bleeeccchhhh.) No matter. We arrived at a place called Saint Crispen, which brought to mind that great Henry V soliloquy (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”), and very soon we knew we’d hit the yummy jackpot. We were seated at the counter and we watched the chef work the pass, checking each dish with the precision of a Swiss diamond cutter mixed with the passion of an opera singer to make sure it was just right. This was going to be good.
We started with a salad of perfect local tomatoes and lightly pickled pressed watermelon, accompanied by olives and feta cheese. This was followed by an appetizer of kangaroo tartare and thinly sliced plums, which were almost the same color as the deep red kangaroo loin. Yep, we have now not just eaten kangaroo, we’ve eaten it raw, and it was delicious. We then had crispy chicken with buttermilk foam, served with one of those science project sous vide eggs that oozes its yolk just right, and the whole affair was topped with a bit of crunchy popcorn. I know, sous vide and popcorn, how precious, but it was really, really good. The main event was roasted pork belly with really crispy slightly sticky skin sitting on a little pool of pureed burnt carrot with some orange and miso tossed in for good measure. Each dish was elegant, perfectly seasoned, and beautifully presented, and the meal moved right into one of our top five of the trip.
The next day we were taken on yet another graciously offered field trip. This time we went to a farmer’s market set on the grounds of a former convent in the suburb of Abbotsford.
Our host, Loretta, is the cousin of my friend (and faithful reader) Marty, and, as with the Morleys, I was reminded how wonderful it is to see a place through a local’s eyes. We feel a bit sheepish about taking up people’s valuable time, but at the same time we’ve met so many really lovely people, like Loretta and her friend Frederica, that it assuages our guilt at least a bit.
I do hope we’ll have a chance to return the many favors before too long.
Next: A homecoming, of sorts, to Japan.