Pieces of me

Pieces of me

There were three doors of the van to slam. The back hatch, the sliding door at the side and, finally, the driver’s door. I hoisted myself up, unleashed Vashti the van and trundled down the driveway. It was only minutes later, as I traversed the hills that give this area of Sydney its name, that I realised it may have been the last time I’d see the house I grew up in. In some ways, it was already three times dead to me: the first when I moved out, the second when the last of our dogs, Chi’na, died and the third when my mum moved out. What I’d left was a shell of what that house was to me.

“How are you doing back there, furniture?” I called out, just for something to say. I was disappointed there was no reply but in retrospect it was probably for the better.

pieces-of-me

It was 12.36pm, and I was tired, not because of my 5.30am start or the illness that had been plaguing me for a week. Nor was it the piles of work I knew I had to get to, including a commission that had, for various reasons including my own shortcomings, been stuck in limbo for five months.

No, it was not a lack of sleep or busyness, not the emotional toll of my parents getting a divorce, not the fact that I’ll be bridesmaid at my sister’s wedding nor the novelty and terror of going full freelance—it was in fact all these things taking little pieces of me that became the beginnings of a downfall.

When I made it home I coerced Boff to help me empty and refill the van. We gained a new dining set and coffee table (actually, the coffee table was my brother’s high school woodwork project, some 25 years old) and shed a pair of ugly bedside tables, our old dining set and several boxes of books, clothes and CDs at Vinnies Burwood. By the time I parked Vashti back at Stanmore and we took the train home to reassemble the dining room table, I was exhausted. The day’s humidity and the months leading up this point had leached the life out of me.

Seven urgent things

My friend Sarah once told me you can only hold seven urgent things in your mind at once. Everything else you either forget or misremember. I realised, as I sat down to write this, that I’ve been holding seven urgent things in my head in almost every sphere of my life.

For work it’s primarily running a website and serving several clients with a side order of doing two years worth of back taxes (still not done), keeping the books and sorting out insurance. The website alone has developer and backend admin things that need to be settled, as well as design and advertising areas to straighten out, and my many clients currently receive varying levels of service, some of them less than stellar because I’ve prioritised firefighting over good customer service, something I’m not proud to admit. And on top of that I was invited to join a team to tender for a magazine contract that I’ve wanted for a very long time. At this point my health deteriorated.

I’m struggling to lose the weight I managed to lose and regain two years ago although I’ve cut out almost all sugar and no longer eat white carbs or carbs after lunch and still get my 5+2 most days. I’m walking long distances again, though my calves are still killing me from my Palm Beach trek on Saturday. I’m not making the time to swim, even though I always rate this one of the bonuses of freelancing. I no longer bounce back from late nights and early mornings and I have no idea why my body chose to suffer from a cold and horrible long days of stomach cramps at the same time for an entire week. Bastard.

It’s possible that I’m giving too much away. In addition to the two Meetup groups for which I’m currently organising events, I run a weekly youth group, have restarted bushcare and last year became the External Communications Manager for the Australasian Specialty Tea Association with almost weekly content requirements. I also put my hand up again to supervise the Sydney Writers’ Festival—my 10th year.

My emotional life is complicated but in ways I’ve never really dealt with before. My parents have been separated for a year and are now in the process of officially undergoing divorce. While I’m holding my mum’s hand, I’m dealing with my dad’s new partner who is friendly enough but is also trying to get me interested in some weird arse MLM scheme that features a brand of numerology and a line of jewellery (containing ‘quantum energy’—sounds dangerous to me). Since I don’t know when all this messiness will end, I’ve let it needle me from time to time with unsavoury consequences. I’m unsuccessfully trying to bury my head in the sand.

They’ve sold the house and as the only sibling based in Sydney I feel an era of house hunting with each parent coming on. My sister is getting married, my brother can’t decide whether or not to settle in Sydney. My aunt died week before last; she was not my favourite aunt, but she was the mother of one of my favourite cousins and that matters.

Somewhere in this I feel I’m neglecting my partner, who’s threatening to ask me to marry him despite the lack of attention I’ve paid him lately. He wants to travel again this year and I don’t know if I can.

I’ve forgotten everyone’s birthday.

I’m not settled. It never used to bother me but now I realise it has been a slow burning problem. We’ve been living in Ashfield for two years now and we still have boxes in our spare room and our respective studies that had never been emptied. I made an effort that may have cost me the last vestiges of my health to find a place for these things. My office is still a mess and knowing that I can’t just set aside a day to push through and get it sorted is fraying my motivation to do anything at all.

And worst, worst of all, I’m not writing for myself. I look back to my teenage years when I had one or two stories on the boil and I could not wait to get back into the world and write it out. Now I don’t even remember dreaming.

There must be other things I’ve forgotten.

Reality Bites: Chinese New Year High Tea (Shangri-La Hotel, Sydney)

Reality Bites: Chinese New Year High Tea (Shangri-La Hotel, Sydney)

In case it isn’t obvious from my short bio, I love tea. Every now and again I treat myself to high tea, so I’m always on the lookout for places to take a (tiered) stand. While monitoring Twitter I came across this blog post about a special Chinese New Year High Tea at the Shangri-La Hotel in Sydney. With no time to post a Meetup (for I am an event organiser for Sydney Tea Tastings), I immediately fired off a group email informing my members of the special, such was my excitement.

Well, not to disappoint but my experience—and even the contents of the meal—was somewhat different to the blogger’s. This is, of course, not the blogger’s fault, but does highlight an inconsistency between an experience designed by the venue for a person of influence (“Cooking Crusade dined as a guest of the Shangri La, but the opinions in this post are my own”) versus one experienced by a member of the public. As an exercise, I’ll take you through.

We received a three-tiered stand with sweets on the top, savouries in the middle and semi-sweets on the bottom. We started in the middle, on savoury.

Chinese New Year high tea Shangri-la 2014

Clockwise from top: pork belly steamed buns; pork ear sang choy bao; barramundi spring rolls; seafood dumplings (centre: sweet chilli sauce) || Photo badly taken by Adeline Teoh’s phone.

BARRAMUNDI SPRING ROLLS

Cooking Crusade says: The barramundi spring rolls encased a very tasty fish and vegetable filling and had a super flaky pastry exterior.

Adeline says: What does ‘very tasty’ mean? Succulent, with a good balance of vegetables and fish, bringing out a distinctly fish taste without overwhelming the mix. I found the spring roll casing crunchy but not flaky. The biggest disappointment here was that it was cold. Not lukewarm, cold. I found this strange considering we ate this layer first and we had even arrived early for our 4pm booking. I was glad it was still crunchy.

DUMPLINGS

Cooking Crusade says: My husband reported that the prawn and vegetable dumplings had a soft exterior with a hot and tasty filling (but mentioned that he preferred dumplings from our usual yum cha haunts).

Adeline says: The dumplings were cold and had a hard ‘rind’ (the bit where the casing is closed together), so hard I couldn’t eat it and bit off the plump bit and left the ‘rind’ on my plate. What is a ‘tasty filling’? A mash of seafood, soft and salty. It may have been more remarkable when hot. For me, coming from Ashfield where dumplings are plentiful and famous, this was uninteresting.

PORK EAR SANG CHOY BAO

Cooking Crusade says: Mike also reported that the pork ears were seasoned perfectly and didn’t need to be dipped into the sauce, but were amazing when paired with the fresh salad it rested on. They were definitely very crispy too – I heard every crunch!

Adeline says: What does ‘seasoned perfectly’ mean? For me, The pork ear sang choy bao was both crispy and chewy: crispy on the outside, chewy in the middle that intensified the pork flavour while giving it a more complex texture. I thought the eastern flavours of the salad—bean sprouts, snow pea sprouts, crispy noodle and coriander on a lettuce leaf—were too strong for the pork, at least the ratio of pork given to us versus the salad. My experience was that the pork was not crispy enough to hear a ‘crunch’ when eaten so perhaps Cooking Crusade received a freshly cooked version. This dish was also cold, though maybe it was supposed to be?

PORK BELLY STEAMED BUNS

Cooking Crusade says: The pork belly was super soft and well matched with the crunchy coleslaw and super soft buns.

Adeline says: We didn’t get coleslaw in ours, just the pork belly in the steamed bun. Ripped off! The pork belly was tender and in the right ratio versus its vehicle to melt gracefully in the mouth without being overwhelmed by the plain bun. This was fine cold as the steamed bun was made recently enough to be soft although maybe warmed it could’ve been nicer.

Chinese New Year high tea Shangri-la 2014

Mango pancakes and custard steamed bun || Photo badly taken by Adeline Teoh’s phone

MANGO PANCAKES

Cooking Crusade says: The crepes were soft and lacy, the rice was soft and gave the dessert a nice texture, especially with the soft juicy bursts of sweetness from the mango.

Adeline says: Most yum cha places undercook the crepes, which makes them taste eggy, whereas this version was well cooked, balancing the sweetness of the rice pudding and mango cubes. The rice pudding is an inspired filling; instead of the usual smooth, cold cream, it provides texture and a more complex flavour to complement the smooth slippery exterior of the fruit.

CUSTARD STEAMED BUNS

Cooking Crusade says: These custard buns are similar to the steamed type you might find at yum cha or a Chinese bakery with the custard baked inside and a soft doughy exterior.

Adeline says: I love custard so I enjoyed these, but the custard-to-bun ratio of 1:3 (apologies for not providing a photo of the bun’s interior) was sub-optimal. I would’ve preferred a bigger custard to bun ratio, perhaps 1:2. The custard was stiff, more like a paste than a goo, and the buns were soft and inoffensive.

Chinese New Year high tea Shangri-la 2014

Clockwise from top: millefeuille; pandan macarons; coconut dacquoise; red bean and sesame layered mousse || Photo: Adeline Teoh

MILLEFEUILLE

Cooking Crusade says: Millefeuille with lemongrass and rose creme patissiere with fresh raspberry and lychee, finished with a rose petal and raspberry. How to describe this dessert? It was simply divine – the freshness of the lychee in the rich custard paired with the lemongrass and rose creme patissiere, just… wow. It’s a fairly well known fact that rose and lychee are basically a killer combination, but to combine it in a millefeuille with the crisp, shattery pastry and a rich creme patissiere was a mindblowingly good combination.

Adeline says: Cooking Crusade clearly received more information about this than we did. To be honest, I couldn’t taste the lychee, the sweetness tended towards berry for me. It was a tart kind of fruitiness that, in combination with the lemongrass, lifted the custard from what could’ve been a sluggish layer of plain sweet to something with a higher top note.

I was disappointed with the pastry; far from being ‘crisp’ and/or ‘shattery’, the pastry was rather soggy. I noticed this because every time I eat millefeuille I usually get it all over myself whereas these crumbs stuck to the plate and the millefeuille bent rather than broke as I carved it with a spoon. Nevertheless, the flavours were interesting enough for my partner Boff to declare this the highlight of the tier.

TART/DACQUOISE

Cooking Crusade says: Coconut dacquoise with lemon curd and pineapple batons marinated in coriander and ginger. Vac-packed and infused for 24 hours to give it a fresh flavour. The soft, coconutty dacquoise melted in your mouth and blended with that sweet but tart lemon curd and topped off with the zing from the pineapple, ginger, coriander…. Just wow.

Adeline says: Again it seems that Cooking Crusade received more information about this than we did. We were told it was a kind of pineapple tart. I found the mellow coconut yield too quickly to the sharper flavours of the curd with pineapple/coriander/ginger. I’m not sure what the taste or texture of a dacquoise is supposed to be like, but I found the cake base to be limp, but soft. The white chocolate triangle in some ways held the balance of power between the mellow and tangy sweetness. I found the juiciness of this dish the most interesting part of it, the bursts of flavour gave it a surprise factor.

MOUSSE

Cooking Crusade says: Caramelised white chocolate mousse (caramelised in house) with apple and lime jelly, sesame crunch, coconut and kaffir lime tapioca, apple popping pearls, red dome is red bean mousse sprayed with red cocoa butter. This was another stunning dessert – and again showcases Anna’s fabulous skills at matching a whole bunch of flavours together and just making them work.

Adeline says: I appreciate detail given by Cooking Crusade because we were told it was a red bean and sesame mousse. I don’t know who Anna is but she’s presumably the chef and someone Cooking Crusade admires. Cooking Crusade does rave on a little more about the unusual combination of flavours but doesn’t actually say much about the experience of eating it so here’s my take on it: this is a combined flavour and texture crusade. The milkiness of the mousse, the graininess of the sesame, the soft rounded tapioca and the popping boba give you gritty squirts of joy, which is a lot better to experience than the way I’ve just described it.

It’s a clash that works because the flavours are complementary. Think of fruit with mousse that’s balanced by the more savoury sesame and red bean and you have the perfect Asian balance: a dessert that isn’t too sweet. To be honest, I didn’t really taste the red bean, which was probably just as well because I don’t really like it, and the lime didn’t have the piquant effect I was hoping it might. This was fun to eat with all layers in one mouthful and sadly there was too little of it.

MACARONS

Cooking Crusade says: Matcha macarons with toasted pandan marshmallow buttercream. Unfortunately I couldn’t taste the matcha very much in the shells, but found the toasted pandan buttercream flavour shone through the most and it was very enjoyable.

Adeline says: We were told these were pandan macarons (actually the waitress said “macaroons” but I knew what she meant). Like Cooking Crusade, I couldn’t taste the matcha, but neither could I taste any pandan. Actually, I couldn’t taste anything but sugar. The shells were biscuity, hard and crumbly, not delicately chewy as I’ve come to expect from macarons. Given I only have a passing interest in the best of breed macarons, this was a sugar hit of disappointment.

This brings me to the end of my comparative review. I don’t know Cooking Crusade personally and I’ve never read the blog before this so I can’t tell you whether this is a standard post for it. I liked the detail of each item (something I’m too lazy to pursue) and the photos were really top notch. The review aspect was slight compared to the enthusiasm she has for describing the dishes but hey, it made me want to try the high tea so it did its job.

The conclusion I will draw is that sometimes readers will have a different experience to bloggers known to the establishment, so readers beware!

I will add, though, that the rest of my experience was exemplary. The staff were attentive and the tea—Dilmah loose leaf—well served. The tea menu was substantial but not overwhelming with plenty of staple favourites as well as Dilmah’s Exceptional range. I had lychee, rose and almond and Boff had Italian almond, which is to say he ordered it, sipped it and let me have the rest (he doesn’t like tea). The tea came freshly brewed in pots and, had I not drunk Boff’s, I could’ve ordered another infusion without any trouble.

All in all the high tea wasn’t a bad experience. Had I not known what Cooking Crusade’s experience was like, I would’ve thought the tough dumpling was the only real quibble, and maybe the sogginess of the millefeuille a reason to mark down the pastry chef, but I felt compelled to write this post because it became apparent to me that I had an inferior experience compared to Cooking Crusade.

I will still recommend the Shangri-La as a high tea venue and am, in fact, keen to try their chocolate high tea. I hope they can, in the meantime, achieve consistency with what they serve bloggers and what they serve the general public.