Portia & Sibylla is an epistolary story (ie. told via written correspondence between characters) resulting from a writing partnership set up through The Australian Literature Review.
The story was written back and forth between Adelaide novelist Lia Weston (The Fortunes of Ruby White, published by Simon & Schuster – interviewed here) and Sydney short story writer Emma Salkild (whose short story Protection can be read here). Of a range of writing partnerships set up to write a collaborative epistolary story back and forth over a period of about two months Portia & Sibylla was judged the best story.
Lia and Emma both drew inspiration from their appreciation of TV cook Nigella Lawson to create their story based around correspondence between a young fan, Portia (written by Emma), and a TV cook, Sibylla (written by Lia).
Portia & Sibylla is about 16,000 words in length and provided free below. If you enjoy the story, you may like to consider donating to a world literacy/education charity such as Worldreader or Room to Read so others can enjoy the benefits of reading and writing.
15 April, 2010
I remember you once said on your morning cooking program, ‘you can have your cake and eat it too,’ while making a rum and raisin mousse cake. I made that two years ago for my friend Robbie’s 13th birthday. It was a big deal because he was the first one in the year to turn 13. But, Anita dobbed on me that I was trying to get us all drunk and I wound up with an after school detention.
I love your recipes Sibylla but I have a confession. I added my own secret ingredient. It’s Wild Turkey’s honey-flavoured bourbon. My Auntie Karen said “it’s all the rage”. She likes to bring fancy things when she visits from Melbourne. The label is smooth and sleek and the bottle is filled up with a rich golden liquid, like real honey. My dad even let me have a sip of his and I was only twelve at the time. I’m fourteen now and I turn fifteen in a few months.
Anyway, I was out surfing when I thought of it. Mollymook is famous for its surf beach and I’ve been catching waves since I was nine. It was a bit of a chilly morning, what my dad would call crisp. I was on my board, bringing her in when it hit me, Robbie should have Sibylla’s rum and raisin mousse cake but instead of rum it should be honey bourbon. What better way to celebrate the beginning of your teen years?
So I brought it out at lunch, lit a candle and started singing. Robbie was impressed. You could tell because his ears went red and his eyebrows looked as though they were up dancing on his forehead. I cut up a small piece for everyone (there’s thirty kids in our year so I had to make a pretty big cake). I waited with butterflies in my stomach. Robbie was eating really slowly and I could feel my chest tighten. Maybe I had added too much butter? Not enough cream? And then he looked at me with half-closed eyes and said, ‘Oh my god Portia, I don’t want it to end.’ I looked around at my classmates and saw there were bits of crumbs on their lips and goop on their fingers which they kept greedily popping in to their mouths. A few of the guys were fighting over pieces, trying to snatch extra from each other. It seemed as though everyone liked it, except Anita. She talks about her waistline a lot and she also likes to recite to you how many calories are in whatever you are eating. It annoys the hell out of me. She will say things like, ‘You know Portia, there’s 100 calories in that orange.’ What does that even mean? I could see her eyeing off the piece of cake that stood so lonely in the middle of her plastic plate. Occasionally the fork would poke into the side and it would look as though the fork would finally make the plunge into the cake, break away a part to stealthily flow through Anita’s over-glossed lips. But instead she would put the fork down, stare at the cake for a few seconds, pick up the fork and start prodding again.
‘Portia,’ she asked me, ‘what exactly is in this?’
‘Cream, sugar, honey bourbon …’
Her eyes went wide and her lips were squeezed tightly together make a long shiny, pink line. Quickly, she got up and walked out of the playground. I thought it was because I’d let slip the secret ingredient. I mean, if you are celebrity chef like you Sibylla, you can give away the tricks of the trade on national TV but I didn’t know if I was supposed to keep these things secret. So I was sitting there, fidgeting with my school bag thinking over and over, ‘I should learn to keep my mouth shut’, when my roll call teacher, Mrs Forbes, came over to me red faced and grabbed me by the arm. She started to shake me and I realized she wanted me to stand, so I got to two feet while she manically began to snatch plates from students, one of which was mid gulp and caused bits of cake to splatter across her green blouse. Students stared up at her with mouths open, full of mushed up bits of brown sludge. Disgust was plastered over her face for a few fleeting moments and then she stormed off with one hand clutching my bicep and the other holding tightly on to eight plates of half eaten cake. Eight plates! She would have taken all thirty of them if her hands had been big enough.
‘Mrs Forbes tells me you are trying to get all the students drunk,’ the principal, Mr Andrews said to me as he peered over the eight plates of half eaten cake. Before I could ask ‘wtf?’ Mrs Forbes was demanding I be put on after school detention.
That afternoon, I was in the science lab scraping gum off from under tables when principal Andrews came up to me with a crooked smile and a bloated belly and asked if I could please deliver a cake to his place tomorrow night because his wife was throwing a dinner party and he was in charge of the desserts.
We have 3,000 people in our town and Mr Andrews actually lives on my street. It’s kind of weird seeing your principal on your street but if I have some kind of function after class he gives me a lift home and that saves me a twenty-minute walk. So I said I would do it and the next morning I made my second honey bourbon, raisin mousse cake. When I brought it around to his house after school he handed over two notes, one pink and one blue. It was my first ever purchase I got for cooking and I put that $15 towards another bottle of bourbon.
That dinner party the word spread about my cake and before I knew it teachers and parents were literally knocking on my door with requests. My younger brother Will, he’s ten and mum calls him ‘wily Will’, started taking the orders for me and keeping the books.
Will and I have been making $50 a week cash in hand since I was twelve and it’s all thanks to your rum and raisin mousse cake. I’ve attached a recipe of my own. It’s my special chocolate/peanut butter sponge cake. I’m hoping to use it to apply for an apprenticeship so I’d love to know what you think of it Sibylla.
Anyway, keep up the good work. Your show rocks. And don’t listen to what Kyle-dumb-arse-Sandilands says. Your figure is hot.
(What a fabulous name! Merchant of Venice is one of my favourites.)
Thank you so much for your lovely letter. I must admit I’m not sure whether to be delighted that my Rum and Raisin Mousse Cake inspired you, or sorry that you were taken to task as a result. Regardless of the consequences, it’s wonderful that you’re already so confident, at such a young age, to take a recipe and make it your own. And experimenting on your classmates is a wonderful past-time. To this end, I’ve attached a recipe for my Face-Melter Brownies; they will propel you to social success better than wealth, good looks, or famous parents. Even Anita The Cake-Prodder will succumb to their velvety embrace.
Congratulations on your burgeoning cake business, too. If I may offer a word of advice (sadly, from my own experience): it’s worth finding an accountant who is not a family member. Wily Will’s nickname, though adorable, may be apt.
Your Auntie Karen sounds like a woman with impeccable taste in liqueurs. Please tell her to look out for The Sweet Hallelujah Cheery Cherry Schnapps they have at Galatane’s at Prahran Market; it’s like angels dancing on your tongue, which you will no doubt discover in a few years. Or earlier, if memory of my teenage years serves.
And you surf! The sea seems to me to be a hostile environment full of many-toothed or tentacled creatures who dislike people more than Gordon Ramsay—how brave you are! Perhaps it’s the fact that I never actually went to the beach until I was in my early 20s—and it involved a bottle of Malibu and an evening I’d rather forget—but I could never be called a beach-goer. Or even a beach-occasioner. My skin is unforgiving. Did you have surfing lessons? Or did you grow up as a water baby?
Thank you also for your chocolate/peanut butter sponge recipe. I’m still in transit on my book tour and have not been able to make it as yet—you’d be amazed how hard it is to get peanut butter in Uzbekistan—but it is on the top of my To Bake list on my return home.
In typical style, the tour is taking up a surprising deal of energy. I’m having to brace myself with three mocha-chinos in the morning just to open the blinds. However, I shouldn’t complain; the numbers at each stop have been wonderful, and it’s always lovely to be able to thank people who support you. My security team has been ever-vigilant after that little episode in Los Angeles—how he got a copy of my hotel room key, I’ll never know—but everyone else has been simply lovely, even the odd ones who smell like mothballs and won’t let go of your hand and keep asking you for a piece of your hair. The odd ones are par for the course. And they’re better than nothing, I must admit. There’s nothing worse, nothing more soul-deadening, than turning up to a book signing only to find no-one waiting there for you. You sit at your little white table, tomes stacked to the side, pen in hand, and hopeful smile at the ready. Your agent or the bookshop manager tries to drum up business, often unsuccessfully, via the intercom in between apologising to you for the lack of turn-out. Although you keep your smile in place, by twenty minutes in, you’re fighting back the urge to accost passers-by by lunging at them with a copy of your book and begging them to buy it. People can instinctively smell desperation, and will usually make a detour into the Gardening (Natives) section just to avoid you.
The fact that you don’t break into a sweat at the thought of cooking for thirty people is impressive; a career in hospitality clearly beckons. Are you thinking of specialising as a pastry chef? Or will you build your current cake business to an empire? Portia’s Cakery? A Cake In Every Portia? (Clearly, advertising slogans are not my strong suit.)
I must apologise and cut this short—my agent is already rapping on the door. In my wildest dreams, she will have a plate of almond meal pancakes with banana and honey butter in one hand and a coffee so strong it will turn my tongue black in the other, but I feel I am wishing in vain.
One last note before I sign off: in baking, and indeed in most cooking, there is no such thing as too much butter. And Kyle Sandilands is a boorish ass.
I got your letter two weeks ago. My eyes almost popped out of my head and I started to scream. Principal Andrews and his wife were walking their dog and he started saying something about being transported back to the 1960s when the Beatles came to Australia.
Wow, you really live the life. Touring around Uzbekistan and Los Angeles. What’s your favourite place you have visited? I’ve never left Australia but I’ve been to Melbourne twice. Dad had told me about your LA incident. Very scary. So how large is your security team? What’s it like having bodyguards?
How long does your book tour go on? And what’s planned next? Sorry to bombard you with questions. Although, you’re probably used to being questioned. Journalists would interrogate you all the time. Has there ever been a really tough question? Whoops, there’s me with the questioning again.
Guess what. My Aunt Karen is taking me to Melbourne. To the Prahran Markets. I read out the letter to her over the phone (hope you don’t mind). She spoke to mum and I’m coming down there for a week. We’re going to go Christmas shopping and eat lots. I can tell that Mum is a bit nervous about it. She’s thinks Aunt Karen is a little bit of a wild child which is weird because she’s 32 – not exactly a child. Sometimes when mum’s talking to friends she says things like, ‘Karen works in musical theatre. Such a shame,’ she will shake her head sadly as though working in theatre means Karen has been diagnosed with a fatal disease. Then she’ll continue, ‘it’s full of gay men. How’s she supposed to meet someone and settle down?’ and then her friends will nod in sympathy. Karen also likes to stress out mum when she comes to visit by discussing her ‘loose lifestyle’. For some reason mum hates this and will say, ‘don’t say that word.’ I’m not exactly sure what’s so wrong about loose. Anyway, mum finally agreed and I leave in two weeks.
Not too much has happened in the last few months since I last wrote. I turned 15. Considered whether I should put up my cake prices or not. Decided not to – we are in a global financial crisis and everything.
“A Cake in every Portia” – that’s funny. I’ve been trying to work out what I want to do. It doesn’t feel like I can do much here from Mollymook. I was considering a pastry chef apprenticeship. Baking helps me to switch off and I like that sometimes I can be creative with recipes or sometimes following a recipe is very comforting. Speaking of recipes I made your brownies. You’re spot on, they were like velvet. Dad ate three in a row, before dinner. And then two afterwards.
When did you first know you wanted to be a chef? You sound like you drink a lot of coffee. I’ve never had it before but have stumbled across a few recipes containing coffee or mocha flavours. Maybe I’ll give it a try.
Great to hear from you. What are your Christmas plans?
I am, unfortunately, old enough to remember exactly what Principal Andrews is talking about re: the Beatles, and feel rather honoured to be put into the same scream-inducing category. I considered donning a black wig in your honour and attaching a photo, but my publicist threatened to quit. Again.
Life on the road—and air, and tram, and train—is taking its toll on all of us, and we are counting down the days until the end of the tour. I feel as if I have slept on every kind of mattress the world has to offer, and found very few of them to my liking. Perhaps my mother was correct and I do have royal blood. I shall insert a pea under my bed tonight to test this theory.
Even my security staff (five, to be exact) are starting to look a little weary. For the first few weeks, they were itching to tackle anyone to the ground who leant too far over the signing table. Now I think someone would have to set me on fire for them to react. But I can hardly blame them; it has, after all, been a few months now since any of us have seen our families. To answer your question, it is a little strange having bodyguards but you get used to it rather quickly. Most of them are very reticent, but every now and then you get a chatty one, and quickly wish he weren’t.
I did get a chance to visit New York, my favourite of favourite places (such a cliché, I know, but the truth will out) so I should stop complaining. At any rate, the tour will be over in two weeks, and then we get a short holiday break. My sister’s family will be spending Christmas Day with me, and I will be spending the day after on my own with brandy and Panadol. (Note: don’t try this for yourself.) In the new year, we start shooting a new TV series, but it’s rather secret so I can’t tell you anything more at this stage…
I don’t mind your questions at all, by the way; unlike most journalists, you’re not asking me what I weigh or why I’m not married. Funnily enough, the toughest question I get asked is what my favourite food is; it changes so often I end up sounding as if I suffer from multiple personality disorder.
I realise as I write this that you’re probably in Melbourne right now, hopefully gallivanting around with your Aunt Karen. (I think I shall just call her ‘Karen’ from now on, if I may.) Your mother has no reason to be concerned about Karen—from what it sounds, she will never have a dull life, and that is far better than settling down with some uninspired but dependable partner for an uninspired but dependable life. Plus, if mine are anything to go by, gay male friends are worth their weight in gold—they are deeply sympathetic people but will never try to sugar-coat the truth. To a fifteen-year-old (happy belated birthday, by the way!), this probably doesn’t sound like much, but it is something valuable in a friend indeed.
Your question about becoming a chef made me think, as it’s been ingrained in my nature for so long that I can’t remember not ever wanting to be a chef. However, I do remember an incident early in my life where I criticised (for the last time, as it turned out) my mother’s pasta sauce. Clearly having enough of it, she stood back, pointed at the stove, and said, “Well, why don’t you do it yourself?” So I did. And have done ever since. I think she was quite happy, actually; my mother was never one of those people who enjoyed cooking. In any case, it meant she had more free time to work on her hobbies—wood-chopping and metalwork, if I remember correctly.
If coffee were available as a blood transfusion, I would take it. Sadly, it has me in its seductive grasp more firmly than I would like. I don’t recommend you start the morning with several espressos, as I do, but you must try it in your baking—it adds an unmatched depth of flavour. Strangely enough, I don’t like coffee it in cakes, but I realise that in this, as with many other things in life, I am on my own.
Speaking of cakes, I’m delighted you (and your father) liked the brownies. I do, however, feel that you should re-think your price strategy. GFC or no, price must reflect not only the cost of the cake’s ingredients but the skill that goes into making it. It occurs to me that is usually only women who believe that their talents and/or time are not worth paying for. Perhaps this is a side effect of being encouraged from birth to ‘play nice’, keep the peace, etc., rather than promoting ourselves at the risk of being labelled ball-busting egomaniacs. You need to make sure your customers value your time as well as the end product; you have a talent that’s worth paying for. It may feel strange at first, but people will respect you more if you keep your head high and stand your ground.
On a lighter note, my publicist is insisting I have a Facebook page. It sounds terrifying. As someone who is closer to this kind of technology—what do you think?
You must write and tell me all about your Melbourne adventures. Hopefully you won’t horrify your mother too much.
A Merry Christmas to you and your family.
You SO have to have a facebook page. I‘ve searched for you on there before and was bummed when I couldn’t find you. Being a fan on facebook would mean every time you published a new cookbook or uploaded a youtube video your fans would instantly know about it. Do it! Do it! Do it!
Some of the facebook pages I’m a fan of are Muse, Taylor Launtner, Glee and Ben and Jerry’s. Are you into Ben and Jerry’s ice cream? Dad has to drive me 80 kilometres away to Nowra to buy it but it’s so worth it. I wonder why it took Australia so long to get it. I mean we’re a hot country and we dig ice cream. Of course we want Ben and Jerry’s.
I am so excited about the new show. Are you doing the same sort of thing?
What’s your sister’s family like? This Christmas we will have a picnic at the beach with my grandparents (from dad’s side). I’m making a bouche de noel.
I am in love with Melbourne. A.K. (that’s what they call Aunt Karen) took me to the theatre, shopping, coffee shops and markets. Since I’ve got back I’ve felt a bit crappy. There’s nothing to see or do here. Mum drilled me with twenty questions about it too.
So what’s your favourite food at the moment? Haha … you don’t have to answer that. It’s hard to find different sorts of food here in Mollymook. Do you know in Melbourne I went for Nepalese? Nepalese! How random is that? I had goat for the first time ever. It was so tasty and smooth and had been marinaded in yoghurt, ginger and garlic. Oh and I went to a Greek restaurant too. Actually if a journalist asked me what my favourite food was I would probably say Greek is my flavour of the month. Moussaka, fava, tzatziki, dolmathes, lamb … mmm. I want to try and make Greek baklava. It seems different to Turkish baklava and I’m not exactly sure why. Is Greek baklava more honey based? My problem is though as soon as I make something I want to try and throw something whacky in to it.
Your mother does wood chopping and metal work? Wow. You’re a real hands on family then. My mother is a hairdresser and works on the main street. Dad works in construction. So maybe we’re a hands on family too. Dad loves football and surfing and he was the one who taught me how to surf. He would take me out when I was younger, hold my hand over the waves. Then when a wave came, if I missed it, he would shrug his shoulders as though it was no big deal. But if I got one he would swim out to me and slap me on the back and say, ‘good on ya Popsy.’ I didn’t say before but most people (or all people) call me Poppy and Dad calls me Popsy. Do you have a nickname?
I took on your suggestion by the way and I have made tiramisu ice cream. I could tell Mum really enjoyed it because she ate two helpings. ‘You’re trying to make me fat, aren’t you darling?’ she asked. ‘Yeah right mum,’ I said to her. ‘That’s my one goal in life. Maybe you’ll get so fat we can charge kids to stare at you.’ She came over to me and made these kissing sounds on my face and then bear hugged me. Which is kind of dumb but it was the first time since I got back that she seemed to be in a good mood and I couldn’t help but laugh.
Things have been a bit intense at home. I am kind of all over the place at the moment because I’m considering leaving school next year. I saw a pastry apprenticeship being advertised for the City Grand Hotel in Sydney. They are even considering taking people from scratch. You have to do a trial day where you make a recipe on the spot based on ingredients they give you. Every time I think about it my heart races a little bit. I told mum and dad about it. Big mistake. She freaked out and started yelling about school and cooking and then she stormed off and dad said, ‘your mother has hit the roof’. Then he walked out too. The next day I talked to Aunt Karen about it and asked her whether she thought I should apply. A.K. says she is sitting on the fence. What’s with all the roofs and fences? So yeah, I’ve got my school certificate now and have to decide if I should cook or start year 11.
Anyway, it’s great to hear from you. I can’t wait to start watching your new show.
Poppy (now you know my nickname and everything)
P.S. I am putting my cakes up 10%.
P.P.S. MERRY CHRISTMAS
Though I’m rather late in my festive greetings, Merry Christmas! Were your beach picnic and Bûche de Noël a success? Feel free to send me a menu and make me green with envy; I’m back home, and fresh seafood is rather hard to come by in this neck of the woods. With you in mind, I was inspired to search for crustaceans at my local supermarket, but sadly all I found were frozen bags of prawns, their pale little bodies locked together by freezer burn. I must contact Chris, my speed-dial fishmonger, and see what he can magic up for me. I feel a Kelantan fish curry coming on… (Typical; one paragraph in and I’m distracted by food already. On to other topics, if only temporarily.)
My sister Isabella and her family are generally loveable though relentlessly chirpy. She has four girls, all of whom loudly corrected me when I asked if the Taylor Lautner you mentioned was in the clothing industry. Visits are always slightly overwhelming; I’m still rather unused to the shrieking, though I’m told they are very well-behaved, as far as children go. After last year’s Christmas—things came to a rather messy head after it was discovered that I had no Disney/Hannah Montana/Babysitters’ Club DVDs—I was prepared for them, and am pleased to report that you can keep several children in relative silence for almost two hours if you give them melted chocolate, nuts, sprinkles, and piping bags, and let them make their own truffles. The youngest (Indiana; a cherub with a sneaking fondness for impromptu gardening) made one she called ‘The Sibylla’. I’m not sure how heartily I endorse her addition of gravel, but it was a lovely thought nonetheless. Isabella and I spent most of the day in the kitchen while Paul, her kind-hearted, taciturn husband, replenished our drinks in between refereeing his brood. As predicted, I spent the next day prone on the couch, listlessly eating left-over truffle mix.
Our family Christmas are small indeed; my mother passed away some years ago. I have no idea if my father was equally unconventional; we have unfortunately never met.
Your parents sound perfectly lovely—it’s understandable that they’re worried about the pastry apprenticeship. Despite the undeniable opportunity, the concept of their baby moving to the Big City would be terrifying. Your father would lose his surfing partner, your mother her bear-hugger. I must ask—is the apprenticeship an annual offering, or is this a once-off? If it’s a one-time-only event, at the risk of going against your parents, it’s an opportunity that I think you should pursue. Your schoolwork could be deferred, if my understanding is correct. (It’s been a while since I was in uniform myself, despite recent UK tabloid reports to the contrary.)
I’ll not say anything more about it until I hear from you again, though I will say it’s a shame it isn’t in Melbourne; at least then A.K. (I can’t help but picture a woman toting a machine gun when I type that) would be able to look after you. She sounds like an ideal tour guide, by the way—isn’t Nepalese food a revelation? Indian dishes tend to slap you in the face with spices, heat, and contrast—not that I’m saying this is a bad thing in any way—whereas Nepalese dishes woo the senses with subtlety and delicacy. How wonderful that you got to try goat—if there was ever a food to sum up the Nepalese cooking philosophy, that’s it. Greek food, however, is holiday food. Greek food is blue oceans, hot white plaster walls, a tiny patch of shade under an olive tree, and the nostril-flaring whiplash of tavern retsina.
In terms of baklava, I believe it is was originally a Turkish dish, but there are people who will fight me fiercely on this, so I’ll stick to what I do know: the Greeks tend to use walnuts and heavier syrups in their versions, whereas the Turks favour pistachios and are more heavy-handed with their butter. Regardless of much-debated origin, it’s one of those dishes which will always be fought over, and with good reason. It must be asked—which version do you prefer?
You mentioned feeling crappy since your trip—you have post-holiday malaise. Don’t worry, it’s quite normal. It’s also hard when you have a special experience like that and then have to suffer interrogation about it; it seems to splinter little parts of it away. Or at least that’s how it seems to me. The malaise will lighten soon, but it cannot be understated how significantly travel can change your perceptions of home life. Things never quite look the same. Ignorance can indeed be bliss, particularly if you’ve never had cause to long for goat curry before.
After your enthusiastic response, I have agreed to let my publicist to look into the Facebook thing. She has assured me there’s very little I need to do; apparently a lot of celebrities—how I abhor that term!—don’t actually update their own pages, but rely on their minions to do it for them. (She referenced some Hugh Jackman/Twitter scandal as evidence. I still have no idea what she’s talking about. Nor, do I hasten to add, have minions.) Anyway, I will venture on to Facebook to look up the names you mentioned; I must admit that—typically—the food-related one was the only one I’d heard of. As a side note, seeing as your tiramisu ice-cream was a hit, why not try to make your own version of Ben & Jerry’s to save your father the trouble of driving 80 kilometres each time you have a dessert craving? To start you off, please find attached a recipe for my own version of New York Super Fudge Chunk; experiment and make your own Mollymook version. Embrace the whacky, as Isabella would say.
I must wrap this up; my personal trainer is due to arrive ridiculously early tomorrow so he can spend the morning yelling at me. In addition to attempting to get in shape before shooting starts (my skirt this morning felt like a turkey truss), I’m atoning in advance for the cocktails I will consume tomorrow night. Do you have any New Year plans? Have you received any more cake orders from Principal Andrews? Well done on the 10% increase, too, by the way—smartly done.
LaLa (this is something I am entrusting you not to tell anyone)
p.s. I don’t have to do the Twitter thing as well, do I?
p.p.s. More news on the new series next time, I promise.
Thanks heaps for your letter.
I’m just writing a quick one because tomorrow I’m heading up to Sydney to apply for the apprenticeship – eeek. Dad’s taking me on the proviso that if I do happen to get in, fingers crossed, we have to still discuss whether or not I go. Mum is not talking to him or me. It’s weird when someone you live with doesn’t talk to you. The other night at dinner she did this nodding thing towards the potatoes and then to our plates. At first I thought she was having some kind of spasm until Dad rolled his eyes and asked for four potatoes.
So where do you live when you’re not touring?
Your Christmas sounds great. I wish we made truffle, although our Christmas was pretty good in the end. Mum was talking to me then and she bought me a GHD hair straightner and an ice-cream maker – it’s like she read your mind about me making my own ice-cream. Or maybe she felt sorry for Dad driving in to Nowra. For Chrissie I made a Moroccan carrot salad. Surprisingly it went really well with our other dishes – prawns, green salad, chicken kebabs and bread rolls. My Bûche de Noël was a success, thanks. Oh, is it okay to boast about your food like that? Grandma Tillie said she felt very ‘wordly’ when I gave her a piece. She hadn’t heard of it before. And after she ate it she kept repeating, ‘So chique. So sophisticated.’
Dad and I went surfing after lunch. I was on a wave coming in to shore when I could see some shadows of surfers surround me. When I turned to look at them I realised it was dolphins. I haven’t surfed with dolphins in months. If I move to Sydney I will miss that about Ulladulla. But I don’t know yet if I’m moving there so I probably shouldn’t talk about it.
Thanks for explaining the differences with Baklava. In Sydney Dad and I are going to try the two types one after the other and compare. I think that’s the best way to decide my favourite.
New years was alright. Well, it’s one I’m going to remember, that’s for sure. Our school put on a barbeque and fireworks in the oval. It was a hot night too so we sat outdoors most of it. My friend Robbie brought his father’s gin and he guzzled it down so fast that twenty minutes later I spent the new years countdown trying to keep his hair off his face while he spewed behind the basketball courts. I’m glad school doesn’t go back for four weeks because it was really stinky.
Anyway, got to finish packing. Wish me luck.
P.S. I wouldn’t worry about Twitter. You’ve got better things to do like recipes to create and books to sign then to be tweeting every ten minutes.
My fingers, toes, and other extremities are all crossed for the apprenticeship. I assume by now that your mother has resumed speaking to you. On the slim off-chance that she hasn’t, she will come around—remember, she’s scared witless. My mother was exactly the same when I left home at 15 to move to London. I remember working out how best to break the news, though in all truth I probably spent more time working out what to feed her rather than what to say. (In the end I plumped for gnocchi with a pancetta and cream sauce. I’ve always found that people take potentially upsetting information better if they have a stomach full of carbohydrates. Remember that; it will prove useful.) When I casually announced my plans, I thought she may be a little upset, but my mother simply got up, walked out of the house, and didn’t come back for three days. This in itself was not odd—my mother had a habit of rambling, often disappearing for the best part of a week—however, when she returned, she simply said, “All right,” and we went about our business as usual. My sister was away at boarding school at the time, preparing for life as an international law experty-whatsit. (She’s told me several times what she does; I’m still not completely sure, but I know it involves both long hours and a long-suffering husband who keeps threatening to get a nanny. Or manny, depending on the day. Before you ask why I was not also at boarding school, academia and I did not see eye-to-eye at that stage in my life. Plus I’d been expelled from my local for setting off firecrackers in chapel.)
Anyway, the point of this would be to say that your mother loves you deeply and is terrified for you. At least your dad is on your side, though it’s never nice for parents to have to play good cop/bad cop. (Once again, I’m relying on said sister for this particular piece of information. She says ‘hello’ by the way; she calls you my “Australian girl”, as in, “How’s your Australian girl?” Adorable.)
To answer your question about where I live, I have a little cottage just outside Cambridge. It’s my haven when I’m not touring, and the back has been converted into a studio with a commercial kitchen. It’s very convenient when required to do shoots; all one has to do is roll out of bed and turn the oven on. In fact, I believe that half of the food pictures from Sibylla’s Midnight Binge were done while I was still in my pyjamas. We’ve shot some of the TV series at home as well (fortunately pyjama-free). My publicist has a wonderful woman who shakes me awake and re-arranges my face so I look camera-ready. I can’t even do my own hair without several strong coffees, so the idea of attempting a French knot at six in the morning is unfathomable. When not working, my leisure time is spent hibernating and eating, like a grizzly in marabou slippers.
I’m actually originally from Wales—it probably explains my tendency towards squeaky-voiced hysteria when upset. When I moved to London, I lost most of the accent as quickly as I could; though I’m not ashamed of my heritage, many Brits think of the Welsh as their slightly backwards but generally harmless cousins. It’s not ideal, especially if one is planning a hospitality career; hospitality is based on compromise and teamwork—at least until you get to the point where you can boss your own team of people around—and the Welsh lilt just puts you behind the eight ball from the start, unless you’re related to Anthony Hopkins. (Already I can hear you asking, “Who?”; my heart shrinks just a little.)
But enough of heritage, rejected or no. How wonderful that you’ve now got an ice-cream maker! Just wait until you enter the world of sorbets. I also mentioned your hair straightener to my Shake Awake woman, and she made an impressed face, so one can only assume that’s wonderful too. Your Christmas feast also sounds a delight—boast away! Please ask your Grandma Tillie if she’d consider a swap of sorts: a cocktail named The Tillie in exchange for me using ‘So chic, so sophisticated’ as a product tag. I have a liqueur line on the plans for later this year; it would be an excellent fit…
I love how you so casually mention not surfing with dolphins for months; it’s one of the most foreign experiences I can imagine. One likens it to dropping, “Oh, I haven’t played bowls with Prince Harry since last Spring,” casually into conversation. (No, I’m not drawing this example from real life, though once I did pat one of the Royal Corgis. It was completely by accident, and a story I shall save for another time.)
Your friend Robbie has learnt the hard way: gin is a friendship best left brief. One or two nips can sate even the most brutal case of summer ennui, but after that it’s a slippery slope from wistful wondering to mild paranoia to bitter melancholia and then tears and recrimination. However, it sounds like Robby missed most of the middle stages, which is probably a good thing; dealing with a companion in the grips of ‘nobody loves me’ is tiresome at best. You were very kind to look after him, I must say; a true friend always holds the hair back.
My own New Year was very low-key; a few friends, cheese fondue, kirsch, card games, and lots of terrible jokes. There may have been some dancing as well; there usually is, but my memory is somewhat fuzzy. We ended up being snowed in for a few days, but fortunately with a well-stocked pantry and common tendency towards laziness, none of us minded. Plus Fatima had just purchased the new seasons of Mad Men and True Blood, so we got to catch up on both the sublime and the ridiculous. They were both deliciously good, in very different ways.
This is my last week of free time before production on the next series begins. I will entrust you to a secret: the new show involves me popping up in public places and creating dishes in makeshift kitchens. I’m a little nervous as to how it’s going to go down—working in an uncontrolled environment always has its risks—but my producer is very fired up about it. If you see a news story in the future about me being taken hostage by a tour bus full of Spanish soccer players, you’ll know what happened. Fingers crossed.
Hopefully you’ll know about the apprenticeship soon; do let me know. (And I’m also looking forward to hearing how you and your father went with your baklava adventures.)
p.s. What a relief about Twitter. It would have been too much for my non-technological brain.
It’s official! I am moving to Sydney. WOOHOO. I’m going to be a big city girl.
I wish you could have seen me doing the cooking test. I was on fire. Mum says girls who boast are unbecoming but sometimes you just know when you’re on a roll. It’s like in surfing when there’s the moment before you are standing on the board but you can feel that you’ve got that wave under control. You own that wave and you know that you’re going to be able to ride that baby right in to shore.
Yes, yes, yes, that’s what it was like for me. As soon as I looked around the kitchen and saw all the tools I had at my fingertips I knew I could do it. There were rows and rows of ovens filled with pastries and a gazillion different types of flours, muffin trays, spatulas, everything. All that steel glistening under the lights made me tingle all over.
I felt terrible before though. Wily Will gave me gastro and two days before, on the drive up to Sydney, I had a bucket balanced on my lap. Dad and I had to keep stopping at toilets in servos (Aussie slang: petrol stations) and highway McDonalds. I lost two kilos by the time I got there which Dad said I couldn’t afford to lose. We were too sick to do the baklava tasting test. But now that I’m going to be a Sydneysider there will be another time for that. YAY!
For the cooking test there were ten of us in the group and they had five groups to get through. The reason I got through to this stage was for a recipe I supplied. It was a cocoa, hazelnut and frangipani tart which had frangipanis on top made out of dried apple.
For the test we had to look around at the ingredients in the kitchen and make something from scratch. I ended up making a rocky road that had white chocolate instead of regular, macadamias (for an Australian touch) and apricots. Then I made a cheesecake with marshmallow and chocolate brownie through it.
At the end of it the head chef Victoria gave us a speech. I think she has been watching too much reality TV. Or maybe TV imitates chefs like her because she made most of the people there shake in their boots.
‘We have tested fifty of you. Five will be chosen. And for those five it will be a journey through hell and back. Not all of you will be able to cope with the pressure and those sissies won’t have the guts to see it through to the end. I see it happen every year. For those of you strong enough, however, you will be rewarded. Remember the proof is in the pudding.’
Her hair was long and bright red (kind of like Ronald McDonald) and she had very white skin (think vampires in Twilight). Her eyes were small blue slits that scanned us one by one and when they rested on me I felt my face go hot and I couldn’t help but shrink back a bit. She was as skinny as stick and had a very square jaw and I overheard a young, tubby guy next to me call her a lollipop head. I actually thought she looked more like a malnourished dragon.
I got the call five days later from Victoria. For days I had pictured receiving the call in my head and what I would do. Perhaps I would cry or squeal or gush like the movie stars do at the Oscars.
‘Portia, you have been accepted for the City Grand Apprenticeship,’ she said. ‘You must be here at 7am sharp the Saturday after next. If you come in a minute late you will be fired. If you come in with even the slightest smell of alcohol on your breath, you will be fired. Do I make myself clear.’
‘Yes Victoria and I promise I’ll be there on time. I don’t drink. I’m fifteen,’ I said.
‘I didn’t ask for your life story. HR will be in contact with you about your pay and contract. Goodbye.’
And then I heard the phone go dead.
So I copied your idea and made the gnocchi with a pancetta and cream sauce and told my parents the news after dinner. Mum burst in to tears and sobbed so loudly that the neighbours rang to check on her. Dad told me I better go to bed and we would talk again in the morning. Over breakfast the next day mum and dad said I could go only if I live with Aunt Karen’s friend. It’s the only person they know in the whole of Sydney and so we are all driving there next week to meet this friend. AK is coming up too for a visit.
Anyway, that’s me for now. I can’t believe I’m leaving Ulladulla. I’m so glad to be out of school. Although I’m going to really miss Robbie and maybe even Principal Andrews. You’re school sounded a bit crappola. Firecrackers in the chapel is beyond awesome though. There illegal here, you know. So you went to a religious school then? Were there nuns in their full penguin outfits and everything?
What’s Wales like? Have you had Welsh rarebit? I used to think it was Welsh rabbit. I looked up Anthony Hopkins on IMDB. He has done 116 films – 116! That’s a mammoth effort. Mum walked past when I was looking him up and she said he is one of her favourite actors. Then she showed me her secret drawer in her bedroom which is full of horror movies. How nuts is that? She said she didn’t want me or Will to watch them and get scared but now I’m brave enough to go off to Sydney we could watch one of them together. So we watched Silence of the Lambs in bed with lots of snacks. I jumped so high that my popcorn went all over mum and her bed but she didn’t mind, she just laughed and gave my shoulders a squeeze. That night I had a dream that it was my first day in the City Grand Hotel and I ran out of ingredients so I used blood and skin. It was so gross and really messed up. I don’t think I should watch any more Anthony Hopkins films.
Anyway, you must have so much to do with your new show. It sounds great. When will it be aired here? If only you were in Australia you could come to the City Grand Hotel and show up the dragon😉
Congratulations! Words cannot describe how excited I am about your Sydney move—and rather proud, though I had nothing to do with it (isn’t that strange?). Your tart and test dishes sound wonderful; I’m craving white chocolate rocky road already.
I will have to take your surfing analogy on face value, but I do know the full-bellied feeling where you know, absolutely know, that your fingers will do exactly what your brain is willing them to do. My friend Fatima, who has a rather good career as a concert pianist, says that it’s the moment where nothing exists except her and the ivory, and she knows it will bend to her will. Perhaps the gastro cleared your mind as well as your internals.
Victoria sounds like many chefs I’ve encountered. Fear not her rampant egotism; it masks an intense passion for the craft. I shall, however, let you into my secret for succeeding with the Victorias of this world, and it is an absurdly simple one: never complain. Victorias hate complaining more than they hate people who turn up at 7.02 am reeking of single malt whiskey. In addition, treasure every compliment as if it were made of actual gold, take all advice on board, only ask questions when absolutely necessary, and, when it gets too much and she assigns you to apprentice butchery, imagine the ways in which you will soon know how to hide the bodies.
Speaking of murder, yes, my school was religious. No nuns, fortunately—that just would have been too much—but with all of the ridiculous rules and regulations and knee socks that come with Catholic schooling. Every now and again, I regret the amount of time I spent protesting against things which seemed so important at the time, such as the horrible berets we had to wear and the fact that physical education was both mandatory and comprised of calisthenics, and more time on study. My mathematical abilities are still below-average, due to my own neglect I’m sure. For the record, fireworks are also illegal in the UK; mine were acquired through a friend’s brother, who was a good sort when he wasn’t behind bars. Alfi was his name, if I remember correctly. He looked fierce and had many tattoos but was inordinately fond of kittens and cottage pie, and so we got along quite well. One wonders what he’s doing now. Probably still selling fireworks to schoolchildren, presumably.
I have indeed had Welsh rarebit. My mother wasn’t a good cook by any means, but she certainly knew her way around a cheese grater. Despite rarebit’s name, I believe it’s not technically a Welsh dish, more’s the pity. Wales has its charms, but its traditional food unfortunately isn’t one of them. I’ve always said, “You haven’t tasted the depths of despair until you’ve tasted cawl.” How to describe Wales itself? Grey. Grey and cold. But if you grow up there, the sea runs in your veins and you’re usually very good at traversing extremely steep footpaths. One day I’ll discover a way to use the latter to my advantage.
So glad to hear your mother is talking to you again, though one wonders if diving from troubled silence straight into Silence of the Lambs is going out of the frying pan and into the fire. I saw that movie at the theatre initially, and have never managed to stomach fava beans since. There—isn’t our friendship wonderful? You’ve introduced me to white chocolate rocky road, and I’ve introduced you to movies which give you nightmares. To make up for it, please take a look at Howards’ End; although it may bore you to death, I can promise there’s not a drop of gore in it.
I must add an apology here for my late response to your letter; the new show, Sibylla Pops Out, has been taking up rather more time than expected. Despite my producer’s enthusiastic promises, we have run into a series of potential hiccoughs. Initially, I was told that the families or shop owners on whom I would be descending (not literally; picture that at your peril) were to be notified of my visit in advance, and the concept of what I was to be doing explained to them. When filming the first episode, I did think Mr. Hajeep was doing a wonderful job of looking surprised, as was the rest of his family, as I spatchcocked my way through their back garden. Upon filming the second episode—which was shot inside a local Asian grocery—, however, I discovered (rather violently, as it turns out) that the Soong family had not been told that we would be paying for the ingredients used. Their alarm as I plucked greens from their stall was quite palpable, and when I opened a bottle of Shaoxing wine (an otherwise wonderful product; promise me next time you’re making chicken soup you’ll add a dash, plus some roasted sweet corn kernels—heaven in a bowl), all hell broke loose. Within a few seconds, my production assistant was being tackled to the ground and the boom operator was having to prise Mr Soong off my portable dehydrator. We’re supposed to be filming a substitute episode tomorrow, but although I’ve been informed that the family involved have no religious food restrictions or life-threatening allergies, I must admit I’m having my doubts. Pray you don’t see a headline next week: ‘Picnic of Death—A Tragic End to MacDougal Family Legacy’.
On to happier topics: by now you will have had your first (and second and so on) days at City Grand. Tell me all. What are they teaching you? What is AK’s friend like? Where does she (I’m presuming she’s a ‘she’; correct me if I’m wrong) live? Has your mother stopped crying yet? Have you and your father done a baklava re-run? Your mother should also stop worrying about girls who boast; to succeed as a chef, you need to possess at least the ability to become an egomaniac, if not the tendency. Although I very much doubt you’ll become a poison-breathing Hydra, meek people have no place in an environment full of sharp and pointy things. To get ahead, you must have faith in your abilities, and the courage to put your weight behind your words. Look at it this way: how many other 14 year-olds do you know who start their own cake business? I know you’ll be brilliant. Be proud.
(As a side note, is Victoria’s last name Tregellis? If so, it would probably be best if you didn’t mention our correspondence. Trust me on this.)
Sadly, as usual, work is calling me. I have three missed calls from my producer, two from my editor, and seven from an unknown number, which is always a worry. Hopefully it’s the security company; for the second time this month, some delightful person has cut the screen mesh from my spare bedroom window. I’m betting it’s the ten-year-old from down the street; he seems to carry scissors wherever he goes.
All my best,
I’m so excited about your show. I’ve been watching trailers and things on YouTube. How did it go with MacDougal family? When will it air in Australia? It’s a really good idea, but I hope you don’t get injured. Was your boom man okay?
Today is my two-month anniversary at the City Grand. Victoria was right and one of the apprentices has dropped out already. I cried into my pillow that night it happened. His name was Michael and he was a 22 year old from Adelaide who wanted to become a chocolatier. His plan was to graduate and then open up a winery in the Barossa Valley that specialised in chocolate and Shiraz. He said most places there do cheese and wines so a winery that focussed on dessert could become a success.
Michael even snuck me in to a wine tasting course, and then watched me like a hawk to make sure I spat out everything. At first I found the spitting really gross but then after a while when you see lots of sophisticated men and ladies doing it it’s not so bad. I even got to try real French champagne. Michael nudged me when it came around and whispered to me that I should definitely swallow that one. It was so yummy my brain started to go on overdrive thinking of all the recipes I could create with champagne. But then I thought maybe there are some things out there that are just great to have on its own, just the way it is.
Victoria seemed to hate Michael from the word go. I don’t know how anyone could hate Michael? He’s so smiley and friendly and he makes amazing chocolate. Well I thought it was tasty anyway. When Victoria would try his cooking she would say things such as, ‘if I was given this I would throw it in the bin.’ And after eating his chocolate-coated raspberry she started to imitate vomiting it up. Actually it was that day that Michael resigned. He told me something that I never realised before. Most celebrity chefs are self-taught, and don’t even do apprenticeships.
Then he took my hand and said, ‘Poppy, you and I could open up something of our own, like Billy Kwong, only we could do it in the Barossa. Maybe we would become successful and famous. You never know.’
The only other boy who held my hand like that was Hedger Russell, my first kiss. My heart began to race as I pictured us living in the valley covered in rolling green hills and trees. But as romantic as it seemed it just didn’t feel right. After everything I had gone through to get here, I couldn’t just stop it six weeks in.
‘I’m sorry Michael,’ I said, ‘But I really want to finish this apprenticeship.’
He gave me a really long hug and told me to keep in contact and then he left. That was about two weeks ago.
The weirdest thing is that Victoria isn’t so bad to me. I’ve taken on your advice and not once have I complained. Every time she asks me to sweep the floor or wash the dishes I just smile and say, ‘no problem.’ Most the time she just rolls her eyes at me and storms off (it seems like Victoria storms instead of walks). Don’t get me wrong, she does tell me off about everything, but she does that with everyone. Once when I was washing the dishes she asked me if I was retarded. I was so confused that I just replied, ‘no’ and she eyed me off as though I was making fun of her.
‘Well, you need to get your act together,’ she said. ‘We can’t have customers kept waiting for clean dishes. This isn’t MacFuckingDonalds you know.’
When I got home I rang dad to tell him what had happened and I heard a pause which I thought was him being cross about the f word she used but instead he cracked up laughing, which set me off until the two of us were in stitches. Dad says with people like Victoria you have to find the funny side. When I sweep the floor she’s always telling (or I should say yelling) at me to hurry up. She hasn’t said anything particularly nice about my cooking, but the other day I saw her standing in the pantry gobbling down three of my cup cake Pavlovas. I was surprised because when she had tried one in front of everyone she had taken a small bite and shrugged her shoulders and then walked on to the next dish.
Now Michael has left there are four apprentices, including me. I walked in to a conversation the other day where the other apprenticeships were having a bitching session about Victoria. They were referring to her as ‘Queen Victoria’ or ‘Her Royal Highness’. I made an excuse that I left the oven on and left the room. Out of the four of us I’m the youngest and the rest are all in their twenties. I haven’t really gotten to know the others. Sometimes they go out for a drink after work and I don’t really get asked to join them. Michael always tried to include me and sometimes he would convince the group to go to a café after work rather than a pub. But now it seems like everyone wants to go to trendy bars and they don’t want to risk me not being let in.
Wow, Alfie sounds interesting. I can’t believe you were friends with a criminal. Maybe I should ask him to make me a fake id. Just kidding, maybe there’s no rush for me to go to the pub. So he would cook too? I’d never had cottage pie before. I made some for Lucy, the lady I live with. Lucy has never eaten it before either so I’ve got no clue whether or not I made it properly. We also discovered that it is pretty good to eat cold the day after.
Me and Lucy are going to watch Howard’s End tonight and Lucy has promised to cook for me. Lucy says she can’t boil an egg and she feels guilty (but I can tell she is rapped) that I cook all the time. Last time she “cooked” for me it was cheese on toast. The thing is, when you’ve been up since 5am working all day in a kitchen, to come home and be given a plate of cheese on toast is heaven. Lucy is pretty nice but maybe a bit lonely. She’s a widow. AK told me that by having me there I am stopping Lucy from becoming an alcoholic. She works really hard too and has taken up an evening job delivering gourmet dinners to people. AK says this is also to keep her away from the drink. So I guess I’m home alone a lot. Although usually when I get home, I just want to crash out. When Lucy is home I try to come up with interesting (non alcoholic) drinks to give her. Like fruit frappes or ginger beer. Have you got any suggestions?
Sometimes Lucy is really vague and flaky and it’s like nothing could bother her and then sometimes she gets a bit upset about things. Once I accidentally used her hairbrush – well, sort of accidentally. She came out with the brush and said, ‘I found your blonde hairs in my brush so I’ve got you your own one.’ Then she handed me a brush. I guess I’m used to just picking up mum’s whenever I see it and using that. Lucy also doesn’t like dishes left to dry in drying racks but lucky for her one thing I’ve learnt in my apprenticeship is how to keep a kitchen absolutely spotless. But besides all that she is nice.
Well Lala, I hope all is going well with your show. How much longer have you got left of filming? Any plans for what you will do after?
Forgive my late reply; there have been a few little fires I’ve been needing to put out lately, though let’s just say my local fireys—lovely boys; always happy to smother a fat flare-up—can rest easy in their jobs. I’m not one for confrontation at the best of times, and lately…
But this is a bad way to start. Let’s begin again.
Michael seems like just the sort of person to have around; how sweet that he chaperoned you to the wine tasting. (Your instincts are correct: French Champagne should always be savoured by itself. I could quite happily throttle the person who came up with the concept of mimosa. It is an affront to civilised drinking; promise me it will never pass your lips.) Though I am sorry to hear about Michael’s early departure from the apprenticeship, I would be willing to bet my favourite Le Creuset casserole that he will end up a success. (As a side note, his chocolate Shiraz-ery is an excellent idea. I’d be getting in on the ground floor as an investor if I were you.) I must ask the question, though; has he been in contact since you last wrote?
Victoria must be pleased that she’s narrowing the field of apprentices so efficiently. In addition to hating complainers, the Victorias of this world also feed on the sweet nectar of tears. It is worth remembering, though, that although she has the exterior of a rapier-tongued Valkyrie, at the core of her brittle coal-black heart is a sad and lonely woman who has not known the bonds of female friendship for a very long time, and who trusts nobody but herself (and, even then, not always). She also may have a fondness for old Italian men with money-laundering connections, as well as an odd protrusion above her tailbone of which she is very self-conscious, but I do not know for sure. (I did tell you not to mention our correspondence to her, didn’t I? I’m sure I did.) As long as you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll survive her reign of terror; reading between the lines, Victoria thinks you have promise, which, of course, you do. It will be essential to keep her on side, even if you despise the sight of her. On that note, well done indeed on avoiding the bitching session; no good ever comes of it. (At least, not until you own your own restaurant; at that point, you’ll want to have your ear to the ground. But until then, be the soul of discretion.)
Away from Victoria and on, with exquisite predictability, to food. Cold cottage pie is almost as good as second-day curry. Also, you must experiment with an authentic Bolognese—the proper ones use pork and veal mince, plus milk. Yes, I know it sounds bizarre, but don’t knock it until you’ve experienced the heaven of mixed meat and dairy melding on your tongue. Bay leaves are a must. Don’t let anyone talk you into adding tomato paste.
I did try to teach Alfi to cook but it was destined never to work—unless he was jimmying a window, he had the attention span of an otter. Coaching him through even the simplest penne puttanesca was like trying to squeeze a watermelon into a shot glass; he far preferred to tell me stories while he worked his way through a bottle of burgundy or three. (Even at the tender age of seventeen, his ability to intake multiple litres of alcohol and still remain standing was impressive, though somewhat frightening.) However, I am forever grateful because he taught me how to pick locks; it’s come in handy in so many ways over the years.
I must say I’m intrigued by Lucy: a widow who’s apparently a hair’s breadth from descending into a booze hound is an interesting choice of flatmate, though I do understand that “choice” is probably the wrong word here. (I’ve attached a selection of non-alcoholic drinks which should be interesting enough to challenge you but not so alarming that they send Lucy towards the nearest bottle shop.) It’s understandable that she gets a bit upset now and again, too; when you live by yourself, you get very used to doing your own thing—no matter how nonsensical it looks to the outsider—and interruptions or changes to routine can throw you off in rather strange ways. Do you know the first thing I do when I get home? Wash my face and hands. Before the shoes come off, before the mail is sorted, I must wash. Woe betide the hapless visitor or call centre interruption who gets between me and my cold cream. And this is even before I’ve started my entire wind-down procedure, which involves a beverage—good day: Cointreau; bad day: Springbank single malt —, three room-temperature squares of Amedei chocolate, and my favourite ostrich-feather housecoat. Very bad days also may call for a soundtrack; salsa music cannot help but lift the spirits.
Speaking of lifting the spirits, I feel I must now acknowledge my bad news. You may have noticed that the YouTube clips of the upcoming show have been pulled. You may also have heard about a lawsuit regarding an unfortunate incident between Mr MacDougal, one of my bodyguards, and a Scotch egg. First of all, be reassured that I am quite all right, and if you ever see any footage of me coming to grips with the business end of a whipped cream canister, the nitrous oxide wore off quite quickly and without any ill effects.
Regardless, we had barely shot Sibylla Pops Out’s fourth episode, which took place on a catamaran—and if you have ever deboned a quail whilst standing on a waterbed, you’ll have some idea how much I enjoyed that particular endeavour—, when we received an ominous call from my producer to say that one of our backers had pulled out of the show without warning. Five minutes after that delightful piece of news, we received a second call to say that ADSA (think of it as a UK version of Woolworth’s) had also decided to remove itself from the series, citing that vaguest of terms: “conflict of interest”. I started having flashbacks to when Sainsbury’s threatened to do the same to Sibylla’s Bedtime Snackery after three viewer complaints about the amount of cleavage in it. Apparently bosoms, however innocently employed, do not gel with their “family friendly” brand. I found the whole episode ludicrous. What else does one wear when between the sheets? A burqua? But let us not get into the whole ‘head-rolling violence is just fine but heaven forbid a flash of areola’ argument here. Back to the present day. After the second call, my boom operator decided it was A Sign—he’s lovely but deeply superstitious; something to do with an Hispanic grandmother and a family curse, I believe—and quit on the spot.
It felt as if I had suddenly contracted some horrible, highly contagious disease. One by one, the crew members abandoned my rapidly sinking ship. I won’t tell you what the rest of the day entailed, but the end result, if you haven’t already guessed, is that the series has been cancelled. I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t slightly relieved; if push came to shove, I don’t think I’d have the stomach to do a traditional Cajun barbecue in an abattoir, which was on the cards for episode nine.
To add to the general feeling of things going awry, my sister’s patient and dependable husband appears to have—as I believe Australians say—“done a runner” with their new nanny. As I write this, I sit among the scattered wreckage of my living room; my nieces are, understandably, in a state of emotional flux, and seem to find smashing plates to be of some relief. And whoever’s tampering with my spare bedroom mesh has decided to extend their repertoire to my bedroom itself; it’s maddening beyond belief. I shall shortly be paying a visit to the parents of the scissor-carrying lad down the road.
I’m sorry to be such an island of negativity. Let us end on a happier note: have your dishwashing skills improved? (MacFucking Donalds, indeed!) And I do love the cupcake Pavlova idea—do you flash-grill the meringue or have you managed to lay your hands on a kitchen blowtorch? I do hope it’s the latter; wielding one is so primal-urge-satisfying. You’ll never go back to doing crème caramels the old-fashioned way. And cheese on toast, it must be said, is ambrosial when one’s feet feel as if they are about to secede from one’s body.
What! This sucks! I can’t believe your show has been cancelled. After reading your letter I rang mum and demanded that someone in the universe explain this travesty to me. Mum said I was being over-the-top and melodramatic and by the sounds of it the outcome was a blessing in disguise. Ugh!
So is that just the nature of show business then? You win some, you lose some. You probably need a tough skin for that. Speaking of which, I walked into the toilet the other day at work and one of the apprentices, Tamara, was sitting on the floor saying over and over again, “I’m a duck, I’m a duck, I’m a duck.” Apparently because of Victoria she is seeing a counsellor. Now every time Victoria says or does something that upsets Tam (that’s Tamara’s nickname) she has to picture it as water off a duck’s back. It seems to be working for her. I guess some people are just born with thick skin and others aren’t and have to learn how to have one. Maybe you were. Did you ever have to picture yourself as a duck? I’m guessing if you and I were ducks we would be sea ducks because we both love the ocean.
You’d be an eider duck covered in a lush down that protects you and keeps you insulated and I’d be a goldeneye duck which dives under water for it’s food (cos I don’t mind going under the water).
Ewwww … your brother-in-law did a runner with the nanny?! That is so gross. How old was she? I thought that only happened to famous people. Oh wait …
I feel so meh today. I’ve just got off the phone from Michael who appears to be doing really well. He is about to sign a lease on some property in the Barossa and has been experimenting with all sorts of chocolate. He is doing some with gummy bears in them for kids, chilli chocolate for adults and he is experimenting with loads of alcoholic drinks like beer, cider, wine, schnapps. It sounds so cool and like it would be a lot of fun. But I just wish he was here doing it in Sydney.
Oh, you won’t believe it. I drink coffee now. Cappuccinos. Some friends bought an espresso machine for Lucy (apparently everyone knows she’s a bit blue lately – and in need of non alcoholic drinks). I was so tired one morning and Lucy was up early too and she took one look at me and then made me a weak cappuccino. Apparently I looked like the walking dead. Lucy can’t cook but she makes good coffee. Instead of just putting a sprinkling of chocolate on top of the cappuccino, she put layers of chocolate throughout the froth. Now I’ve been drinking two coffees a day, one first thing in the morning (like at 5am) and one at 11ish. The barista makes me mochas. He puts marshmallows in the bottom with a dollop of actual melted chocolate and a shot of coffee. The marshmallow sits there turning gooey and soft and then he adds the milk and then the froth. So when you look at this mug of hot drink you can’t see a marshmallow at all until you start to drink it and then they pop in your mouth and melt on your tongue.
In answer to your question – it’s all about the kitchen torch – yeah! I love it. I had never used one before and when I do things like use the kitchen torch it’s a great reminder of why I’m here and all the things I’m learning.
Well, I’m going to bed now, even though it’s Saturday night and 7:40pm. To be honest, it’s not like I know anyone to do things with anyway but I am soooo tired. It feels like my eyes are going to pop out of my head. Working six days a week can be rough. Yay for having Sundays off.
Take care Lala. I can’t wait to read your next letter and I hope all is going okay with you over there.
PS I looked up Scotch egg. That sounds sooo disgusting. Do you actually eat those?
There are only two real certainties in show business: one) no matter how much praise you get, there are people who will inexplicably hate you for reasons you will never understand, and two) having people recognise you in the street is fun only for the first handful of times before descending into a mixture of tiresome and frightening.
There—nothing like a bit of melodrama to start with. Forgive me; I’m having a Mrs Bucket moment. (Ask your mother if you have no idea what I’m on about.) I am sure that the cancellation of Sibylla Pops Out will turn out to be a blessing in disguise, although I must admit the blessing is taking a while to make itself known. In more positive news, after their mass exodus in a hail of haggis, I’m pleased to report that most of my crew have returned to reassure me that they’ll be on staff to shoot the next series. I’m fairly sure that my boom operator is gone for good, however. (Fortunately it’s not a highly skilled position; one only needs steady arms and to know when to get out of the way.) Crew or no, I must admit I have no idea what the next series will be, or even—I will admit this to you—if there will be one. Somewhere between being threatened with a black pudding by Mr MacDougal and the whole sponsorship debacle, I seem to have lost my drive to shoot. In fact, the idea of creating another show—and all the pitching and wheedling and eyelash-fluttering that goes with it—just makes me tired. I seem to be spending a great deal of time in the bath of late, eating custard.
I honestly wonder how many “thick-skinned” people truly are such; I suspect that they must just be better at faking nonchalance than others. If you truly don’t care what other people think of you, you have the makings of a sociopath. And in some areas of celebrity (e.g. reality television, current affairs journalism, anything connected with Simon Cowell) that may be a help. However, I’ve never been very good at handling mud-slinging. A person in the public eye is supposed to be above being hurt by bad reviews or slurs, but I’m telling you, it takes a stronger person than I not to tear up just a little when you see a website called SibyllaIsAFatScrag.co.uk. Or after getting an email that insinuates that you can’t have any co-presenters because you might eat them. Or upon being offered representation by Weight Watchers, who think you’re the perfect ‘before’ picture for their Slim Down 2011 campaign. I must admit, some of it is my fault; there has been a fair bit of comfort-eating going on of late, due to certain stressful events, and my personal trainer has been out of action for several weeks with a strained groin. (Don’t ask.) My wardrobe lady is very good at selecting outfits that will disguise where my latest lasagne has decided to settle on my body, but even she can only do so much. I have also noticed that during recent photo shoots, they’re starting to position me behind larger and larger table ornaments. One day I will arrive and find a cut-out scene to stick my head through. Clearly, something has to be done. I foresee a routine of green tea and chicken salad in my immediate future, though there is a chiffon cake in my fridge that just needs to be polished off first.
Victoria has claimed another scalp, I see. I do hope Tamara is feeling better. (On that note, if you ever need to get out of a very sticky situation with Ms Tregellis, tell her Salvatore says ‘hello’. That is all I shall disclose.) Fortunately I have never had to picture myself as a duck. I find it far more useful to visualise an army tank, with its hard impenetrable shell and ability to squish its enemies to a bloody pulp. How sweet of you, however, to say I’d been an eider duck; at the moment, I feel more like a fried duck.
On the topic of lame ducks, my brother-in-law is thirty-four, going on five, and the nanny is twenty-six, I believe. Or twenty-seven; I find the Yugoslavian accent hard to understand at times. My sister and her girls are still here; though Isabella has stopped crying for long periods of time, it has been replaced by an eerie serenity. I can’t be sure whether she is merely amusing herself with elaborate revenge fantasies or has been sneaking some of my pills. The children, bereft little souls, will be going back to school next week. I don’t know who will be more relieved: me or my chickens. (Poor Beatrix hasn’t laid for weeks.) To help ease the pain, I have been giving everyone second helpings of rice pudding, though I feel in this situation, starch can only do so much to heal several broken hearts. I have a feeling that Paul will come back, though; the delights of golden thighs and a body that hasn’t borne several children will surely wane when you realise that you only had five things in common and four of them were left behind when you reached the train station. I’ve also been having a lot of dropped phone calls of late, plus keep hearing a rustling in the garden at night; perhaps Paul is sneaking out under the cover of darkness to check on his family. We can only hope. In the meantime, I will keep cooking, and gluing my favourite ornaments back together.
When you get a break from the apprenticeship, I would seriously consider going to visit Michael. From all reports, South Australia isn’t so bad; I’ve heard the food is wonderful, even if their politics are somewhat conservative. You’ll need to watch your coffee habit, though; cappuccinos are the gateway coffee drink. I shall expect to hear of you drinking macchiatos before getting out of bed, soon. Though I can’t lead by example, try not to have more than three a day; it wreaks merry hell on your sleep.
And with another tinkling crash from the study, I am summoned away from my desk. I hope you are keeping well, and that you and Lucy are looking after one another.
p.s. It turns out that the little boy down the road has been away at boarding school, and is not my screen-cutting culprit. More detective work needs to be done. Besides, I don’t think he would have been able to reach the bathroom window without a ladder.
Okay, your last paragraph made me a bit worried. It’s not a stalker again is it?!! You’d probably take jerk-face-brother-in-law over freaky-stalker-man (or woman) any day, right?
Tamara is recovering well from the Victoria attacks. After the letter I wrote you I brought her in a picture of a duck too.
She got the giggles something chronic and then said, ‘I can’t remember the last time I had a good belly laugh. You’re funny.’ Well, I thought I was being productive and helpful not funny but anyway … we’ve been hanging out together. I’ve even been teaching her how to surf at Bondi, although, the first time was a bit of a disaster. Bluebottles were bobbing along passing us by like they were out enjoying a day of surfing too. I was okay because of my wetsuit but Tamara had bought a new bikini she wanted to show off. Blue tentacles wrapped around her arms and legs and once the stinging set in she dashed out of the water and began asking people on the beach for vinegar. Then as the stinging got worse she ran across the sand, up on to the street past a crowd of men who looked like body builders and into the nearest cafe where she grabbed a bottle of salad dressing and began to pour it all over her arms and legs. I was about two metres behind her and tried to call out that vinegar doesn’t help relieve the stinging but she couldn’t hear which sucks because putting vinegar on bluebottle stings is like drinking water to relieve chilli – in other words, you’re screwed. So as the pain got worse she started to scream “yeeouch” like something from a Warner Brothers cartoon. I guess just like my duck picture had given Tamara her overdue belly laugh, watching her bounce around with salad dressing all over her sent me in to a fit of giggles. I know that sounds terrible to laugh at my friend’s pain but I couldn’t help it. Luckily the café manager had a sense of humour and he told us there was a hose out back we could use to wash it off.
Tamara has asked me if I would want to move in with her next year (once our apprenticeship has wrapped up). She reckons we’ll both get offered jobs somewhere snazzy in Sydney because at the end of October Victoria gets a bunch of bigwigs in who watch us work and then decide if they want to get us on board.
But I have other news. HUGE news. Michael has invited me to his opening night for his chocolaterie winery. Not only did I receive the invitation in the post (I thought only you and I did old school things like snail mail) but … there was a one-way ticket to Adelaide in there and a note saying that a job for me is still on offer. The opening is in six weeks time. Coincidentally that’s also when the apprenticeship wraps up for the year. Not sure if he did that on purpose. I can always just buy my return ticket back, but I can also picture myself arriving there and deciding never to leave. Michael rang me yesterday to run some new chocolate ideas by me: one is filled with lemon curd and another with banoffee pie. I had to catch dripping saliva – thankfully we weren’t on skype that day. He says he would be happy for suggestions for other types of desserts and my mind has been racing with new ideas for treats. Perhaps on a hot day I could do chocolate sundae with pineapple and mint or a lychee flavoured frozen yoghurt with bits of cucumber. For afternoon tea I could prepare choc chip scones with a thick caramel sauce on the side served with a topping of dates or maybe a petit four with basil and chilli. Actually I’m not sure if that last one would work but that would be the great thing about being Michael’s employee. He would encourage me to experiment and try out the really whacky stuff. If I got a job as a kitchen junior in Sydney I may not be given the same luxury. I’d probably have to listen to barking chefs and follow orders. So perhaps the Barossa it is. But then where would I surf? Although, maybe Michael and I could take day trips to the beaches surrounding Adelaide … eek, my mind is running away with me.
The other thing is once the apprenticeship is over mum and dad want me to go back to Mollymook and do year 11. Which would be kind of weird because Robbie and all my friends will be in year 12 and I would be with the younger kids. I’d probably wind up really patronising and say things like, “when I was your age” or “seeming I’m older and wiser than you.”
Sydney? Mollymook? Barossa? Or maybe I’ll just turn up on AK’s doorstep in Melbourne. Haha. Or who knows, I could come stalk you in Cambridge – just kidding. I think you’ve got enough of those.
Anyway, my head is all scrambled up right now and I don’t have too much more to say than – I don’t know what’s happening. But whatever happens, I’ll keep ya posted
My dear Poppy,
Four Frangelico-laced marshmallow-stuffed hot chocolates, and my mood is no less melancholy. Even a dash of my beloved Rumple Minze has done nothing to dispel the gloom. Forgive my dramatic mood. Unfortunately it’s warranted.
As you may have heard—no doubt, actually, unless Britain’s entire tabloid press has been wiped out in a fortuitously-timed explosion at a Eastenders Royal Wedding Naked Politician Sex Expo—the Sibylla empire is no more.
Under threat from the MacDougall lawsuit (and two others that my lawyers decided not to tell me about; one was from a couple who claimed that my Butter-Stuffed Triple Whiskey Ganache Cake with Mascarpone Icing was the sole reason they both gained two stone and had to quit their jobs in the Cirque du Soleil. They made three cakes a week. Three! Even I could not stomach that much delectable wonderfulness.), my production company has been forced into receivership.
As I tearfully shredded twenty-three years’ worth of financial documents under the watchful eye of my accountant, I was told that this also meant the Sibylla range of books, DVDs, podcasts, cookware, tupperware, Cornish ware, loungewear, calendars, impending liqueur line, and slippers were also to be wound down. All of my lifelines, my precious babies. You cannot imagine the hours I spent creating these products. (Well, except for the calendars; all I did was get squeezed into one corset after another and pose with a different Vegetable Of The Month, but even that was no picnic. I’ve never sweated so much in the presence of a pound of potatoes before.)
To add injury to indignation, you were unfortunately right; the person cutting my screens, and trampling my heirloom tomato beds, and stealing hair from my brush, was not my jerk-face-brother-in-law, as you so delightfully monikered him: my stalker has returned. Actually, I have Jerk Face Paul to thank for discovering said stalker, in part. As predicted, J.F.P. decided after several weeks that, springy bosom or no, he had about as much in common with a 26-year-old Yugoslavian nanny as I do with Lance Armstrong, and decided to return home, tail firmly between his legs. His return was unfortunately timed, though. At Isabella’s insistence, who felt like shrieking at something that wasn’t one of her children, we were sitting through The Exorcist: The Director’s Cut when there was a bang on the front door. Although my instinct was to hide, after a litre-and-a-half of Moet, Isabella was spoiling for a fight and insisted on answering the call, bottle in hand. The first thing I heard was an almighty scream, but even as I unearthed myself from beneath two counterpanes and the remains of my fried buttermilk chicken, I realised that it was not my dear sister who was in trouble. By the time I reached them, she had already poured the rest of the Moet over Paul’s head (I did wince, momentarily, to acknowledge the waste) and had set about kicking him in the shins. Realising that his kneecaps—and possibly other anatomical parts, were in trouble—Paul retreated around the side of the house, and there literally fell over the person who was in the process of removing the mesh from my cellar window. Unfortunately, the stalker was too quick for Isabella, who could barely stand, and Paul, who was having trouble walking for different reasons, and disappeared over the holly hedges.
My old security team has been fired. My new security team strongly recommended that I go on hiatus for a while until the whole lawsuit/bankruptcy/stalker debacle blows over, and so I am currently writing to you from exile. It’s a little like being on holidays, except I can’t tell anyone where I am, or when (or if!) I’m coming back. Thinking about it, it’s like being on holidays if you’re working for the Chinese government.
I’ll pause here in my litany of self-indulgent misery. Besides, my glass needs refreshing. On to your letter.
Poor Tamara, but she can take some comfort in the fact that no-one tried out the old wives’ tale regarding urine relieving a sting. It could have led to awkwardness. Although she sounds like a good contender for a flatmate (as is anyone who doesn’t mind you laughing at their pain), I must admit I’m much more interested in your gift from Michael… A friendly reception, paid work, the freedom to experiment—I think your choice is pretty clear. It’s also worth remembering that the Barossa isn’t far from Adelaide, and, thus, beaches. If it were me, the next letter you would be writing would be on Qantas stationery from the airport lounge.
On the topic of voyages, you are probably wondering what is in the crate that has accompanied this letter. (If you haven’t already set about it with a crowbar, of course, though I feel you would be reading this first. Go ahead and open it now, if you have a moment.)
Recent events have found me re-assessing my life’s baggage. I have decided to set some of it free where it might do some good. Of course, I thought of you, so consider this an old-fashioned care package, of sorts. (Again, ask your mother if you have no idea what I’m on about.) Firstly, regardless of where you end up—Barossa, Sydney, or Mollymook—I thought you might get some use out of my most cherished cookbooks. Some of them are older than you, but they’re the foundation of my gastronomic education. There are copious notes riddling their pages, except for Mama Cioluccia’s Tuscan Feast—she gave it to me few weeks before her death and I felt her recipes so exquisite that there was nothing I could add to them. (Everything I have made from that book has been ambrosial, including the ambrosia itself.)
Accompanying these tomes, you’ll find my favourite wooden spoon, which must only be used for sweet things and has the ability to turn any cake batter into something that can make a grown man weep, my second-favourite cherry-red Le Creuset casserole (apologies; Isabella claimed my favourite one), and my special flame-proof, spill-proof, Victoria-proof apron.
So you don’t feel as if all you’re getting is hand-me-downs, the soft leather roll-up holds your own set of Wüsthof knives. A chef is only as good as their blade, and most excellent knife sets are ridiculously expensive, so this way you can spend your money on something else. I know it’s considered bad luck to give knives as gifts, but Fatima assures me that if you throw a coin into the ocean the next time you’re out there, it will karmically settle the debt.
Finally, you will find an envelope at the bottom of the crate, which contains two things. The first is a cheque; I would strongly suggest you use it to invest in the winery, or, if not, put it towards furthering your professional development. A trip to Morocco, to study spices, a sojourn in Japan to soak in their particular reverence for food, et cetera. The second is a phone number; if you find yourself in desperate need, this will be a way to reach me. Just ask for Alfi.
I’d best sign off here. The post master only collects the mail every seven weeks. (It’s maddening; all of my magazines are well out of date by the time they arrive.) Anyway, if this is my last letter to you, your friendship has been a pleasure and a joy. Hopefully we will meet one day, possibly over some basil-and-chilli petit fours.
All my love,
p.s. Remember: you can always go back and do schooling later, but a one-way ticket to Adelaide waits for no-one.
The Australian Literature Review