Happy weekend

30 May 2015

Now that Tony's exhibition has wrapped up we're looking forward to our first proper weekend together in months. I'm just excited about not waking up to an alarm :) Have a lovely last weekend of Autumn, here are a few good things:

Bread and butter pudding time!

Two zines I ordered this week.

Beautiful travel photos from my friend Halla.

Very cute wrapping paper.

A compelling radio documentary series - I'm two episodes in.

Photographer extraordinaire Garry Trinh has a new exhibition in Sydney.

P.S Wagga Wagga now has ramen.

Interview + Recipe - Lee Inch, Ajanta

28 May 2015

Lee Inch runs Ajanta, a Coolamon cafe that specialises in my favourite things - cookies, scones and homemade cakes. When I'm in need of a serious sugar fix, I'll make the 80 kilometre return trip from Wagga Wagga to the nearby town for a good slice of cake.

I've always been curious about the shop, with it's ever changing cakes, beautiful tea-ware and Friday through Sunday opening hours. Last week, before the after school milkshake rush could interrupt us, I chatted with Lee about Ajanta’s humble beginnings, how she chooses what to bake next and the cookie she can never seem to sell. 

How did Ajanta get started?

I always wanted to have a little cafe of some sort, I've always baked and my real job is at the school - I've worked with the Department of Education for, jeepers, 18 years - I'm actually still on leave without pay. I was approached by a co-worker who was heavily involved in this building and who has Treats and Treasures across the road. He said - Lee, I have just got the space for you. 

Ajanta came about probably because I thought, if I don't do it, I'm never going to do it and it was only ever going to be two years. I thought I'll do it for two years and get it out of my system. It will be 11 years in October.

My two older children and I went to India for my 50th birthday and we went to these caves called Ajanta, so that's where the name comes from. They were only rediscovered in the late 1980s, British soldiers could see a tiny opening across the hill, and once they went across to investigate they found these caves. Out of everything I saw in India, it just blew me away. In one of the caves there is a life-sized elephant that's been carved out of the rock and you wonder how they did it without light? It was the most amazing thing, I don't think I've ever seen anything as beautiful again. 

Did the name have any relation to how this space is laid out? It does feel like a bit of a secret spot because you can't see into it from the street and the first time you walk in, you do feel like you've really discovered something.

What I saw was the caves were very ordinary outside and full of colour on the inside. To me, it's a lot to live up to because this would be nowhere near as beautiful as Ajanta but because this building is governed by heritage - I can't put proper lighting in, I don’t have any windows and it’s very ordinary around the outside. 

The first time I came here I noticed that you only sold cookies, cakes and scones and I thought it was pretty bold. Was it a difficult decision not to serve lunch? 

I've got a business plan and I get it out sometimes to have a laugh. In my initial business plan, within six months of opening I was going to have brunches, I was going to do lunch, I was going to have theme nights with entertainment and then I started and thought - what was I thinking? It's a big thing to do all of that by yourself. 

Wow, so it wasn't like you initially thought - cookies and cakes, that'll be it. 

No, no. That was the beginning - I'll just open and we'll just do this simple little morning tea and then I'll move up. But the thing is the busier Ajanta's become, and it has, the more I'm cooking and I don't have time to do anything else. And it works so well the way it is anyway. 

I want to ask you about the cakes, your daughter Jess mentioned that there's a bit of a formula as to what you bake for different days?

After all of this time I try not to repeat and I have two new cakes over there today. I call them virgin cakes and I like to try my virgin cakes out on a Friday because I have lovely local people who will tell me honestly - Lee don't do that again or it was fabulous. We tried the zesty lemon today which is totally sold out, it was divine.

The only things that I have all the time - I have the fruit cake, the biscuits and the scones are always there. The only cake I have religiously every week is the chocolate cake on Saturday. A boy who usually sits over there has been coming here since the day I opened with his mum on a Saturday morning, he religiously has chocolate cake and chocolate milk. He's 15 now. That's a favourite part of having Ajanta, watching kids grow up, watching kids be born. 

There are probably five things that I could put on every single day that I know would sell out. They would be Whitey's sponge, which is the recipe I’ve given you, an ordinary old hummingbird, although I do make a Belinda Jeffery version of it which is a beautiful robust cake that I tweak just depending on what's in - I'll put some fresh mango if they're in. So it would be the lumberjack, hummingbird, the sponge cake, chocolate cake and sticky date anything.

Did you say a lumberjack?

Yeah lumberjack, which is apple and date. It’s really old fashioned and it has a baked on topping of coconut mixed with egg and you put it on the cake so it's lovely and crispy. I have found that as much as I love doing new exciting recipes, the cakes based on the old fashioned recipes are by far more popular. The only thing I've never been able to sell, I've made them probably on three or four occasions, are Anzac biscuits.

Where do you find new recipes?

Everywhere. I love Donna Hay, Belinda Jeffery, Bill Granger and I'm always looking. It's more about how they present things, how they decorate things. I'm not a cake decorator, I've never been to classes but I like the cakes to look different. I love sauces, I'm near orgasmic when the fruit comes in. I really am.

I had my last plum cake last weekend, that will be it now for another nine months until they come back so now I'm looking forward to the quinces, pears and at the moment I’m doing a lot of apples. I love this time of year when I can start doing the lovely caramel and butterscotch sauces.

The presentation in your shop is so thoughtful, from the embroidered fabric napkins to the silver forks. How did you go about sourcing all of the smaller details, like all of the beautiful tea-ware?

I'm always buying napkins, I probably have well over a thousand napkins but they get rotated so they don't wear out. They might only get used once a month and I rotate them all. It's me that irons, washes and spray starches them and I still buy them.

I have a colour theme, which is Johnson Brothers, the really old fashioned lemon, pink, pale blue and pale green. So no matter what you put together, it still works because of the lovely soft colours. If the staff were to break that teapot today, I just wouldn’t talk for three hours because it's not even about the expense, it's about finding that teapot that fits in here.

In the beginning when we were putting the shop together, I would get up really early on the weekends and hit the garage sales. I'd be in there at 7 am and 11 years ago, there was no navigation. It would be a map and the paper and then I would have to decide, okay, which suburb would have sort of things I’m looking for?

I guess the biggest reaction, which is really nice, is from the older men. The blokes will say, oh the butter curls and the napkins. I'm thinking - that's so nice for you guys to notice that.

The presentation and the baking, was that something you grew up with? Is that what you’re trying to replicate?

No, not really. I always had a passion for baking as a very young girl but my mother would never let me cook at home because of the mess. And sometimes because I do all the baking at my house I think - no wonder. 

The person that had the biggest influence on the way I now look at things was a lady that was in my life for one hour max, when I was young and pregnant with my first child. 

We were temporarily living with my in-laws and as soon as my mother-in-law went to work, I would be baking and they were mostly failures. I can remember the first thing I baked, I used up some nuts that she had in the cupboard and she came home and searched for those nuts and I'd made this cake and I'd put it in the bin and I never fessed up that I'd used them. She looked for ages and I felt really bad about it. I never gave up and on the third occasion I had made a chocolate cake. I'd just got it out of the oven and it was this big and I'm in tears - pregnant, highly hormonal and crying.

You'd made a big cookie.

Then someone came to the door, her name was Eve Horn, I'll never forget her name. She just cuddled me because I was this young girl and she said, 'Why are you so upset?' She'd actually come to sell me a second-hand pram because she knew we were young and didn't have a lot of money.

She said, 'Come on, put it down and we'll fix it. We'll make it into a torte.’ I had no idea what a torte was. She got a serrated knife and she cut this tiny little cake into three layers, whipped up some cream, grated some chocolate and chopped up some nuts. It was magnificent. And she said to me, 'Remember, it doesn't really matter what it tastes like but it's always got to look sensational.' 

That woman had so much influence on how I looked at things. My neighbour always says she loves it when I do really rustic cooking. She's a young woman and she gets a lot of rustic cooking because I do have a line where it's - I cannot put that out - so I’ll throw it over the fence to her, saying here's some cake for supper.

What recipe have you decided to share and is there a story behind it? 

I call it Whitey's sponge, Mrs White was 92 when she gave me the recipe. She died, I think, when she was 101. She was still making this cake at 92 and the recipe I have is in her original writing. Every time I make it people will come across and tell me - I have not had a sponge cake like that since I was a kid. 

It's a really old fashioned sponge cake and it reminds me of her, and I love to make it because I know I've got it down pat now. Back then, in a lot of my original recipes, there's a pinch of that, a handful of that - it's not measured. Now the two tools I can't live without are electronic scales that convert pounds and ounces into metric and a sifter, a really good sifter. 

Thank you Lee.  You can find Ajanta on Faceook or pop in from 9.30am-5pm Friday to Sunday. 

A huge shared milestone

25 May 2015

Over the weekend Tony completed his PhD in Fine Art and it felt huge, exciting and surreal. It ended in the best possible way, with a party to celebrate the final days of his exhibition Stay, which was three years in the making.

To celebrate, both sets of parents came to stay, along with some close and new friends from Sydney. It felt very festive and in between portrait sittings and big family meals out, there was also horse riding and afternoon teas. I hardly took any photos but thankfully my friend Angie did!

A proud owner photographs her new painting :)

While Tony's exhibition at Wagga Wagga Art Gallery has been extended and will remain open this week, Sunday marked the end of his residency in the space, where he has been drawing anyone who booked in for an hour long portrait sitting. All up he drew 222 portraits in 43 days.

I loved seeing the drawings as they popped up on Facebook, Instagram and Flickr, and because most of his sitters were from Wagga Wagga, it became a bit of a guessing game. It was lovely to see so many of our friends change their Facebook profile pictures over to Tony's drawings as the show progressed. My friend Amy even wrote about her experience of sitting for a portrait on her birthday.

It's been a busy few months and we've welcomed lots of visitors who came to see Tony's show and take part in the exhibition, some even travelled from Sydney for the day. It was particularly busy for Tony who drew six days a week and taught at university on his day off. He also boldly decided to skip lunch on his drawing days, so he could fit the maximum of six sitters per day.

I booked in to sit on the first and last day of the show and was the final sitter of the project. I didn't know what to wear for my second sitting, having observed lots of fun outfits and strong poses over the last two months, and I asked Tony if he had any suggestions. He suggested a dress I bought years ago and wore at our wedding, which I was nervous about but posed in. 

I love the final drawing, it's my most considered sitting yet and felt more like a collaboration. Most of the time I've been drawn in coffee shops whilst reading, or at home in my not-so-cute pyjamas!

A lot has happened in the three years that Tony's been working on his PhD, he's had three solo exhibitions, a residency at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, been hung in the Salon de Refuses and been a finalist in the Brett Whitley Travelling Art Scholarship. We've also been engaged and married, become an aunty and uncle, gone overseas and lived apart so we could work in Canberra and Sydney.

On Saturday night at the closing event I loved looking around the gallery and recognising people who had been drawn, along with all of our Wagga friends who came to celebrate the show and our family and friends from Sydney who travelled to support Tony. It was such a proud moment.

Hello weekend

23 May 2015

I have so many great things to share this week and hope you have a fun weekend ahead. My friend Angie is coming to visit, which I've been looking forward to for weeks. We had so much fun living together last year and she always brightens the mood.

I just ordered some baby shower goodies from this hip Sydney store.

Radio Housewives was one of the best podcast series I've listened to in awhile. It's funny and fresh.

More tiny apartment envy.

Very cute t-shirt alert.

Make your own Shake Shack burgers! Tony's making these next week.

And I'm thrilled to have tickets to this crazy-sounding documentary.

Have a great weekend, I'll have some new interviews to share soon :)

Sonya - Life in Wagga Wagga, NSW

21 May 2015

This week I’m excited to launch a new series, Life In that will give you a glimpse into what it’s like to live in different parts of Australia. Soon, you’ll be hearing about life in Hobart, Perth and Sydney but first I wanted to show you around my adopted hometown of Wagga Wagga. Moving to regional New South Wales has definitely opened my eyes to life outside a city. Here are a few observations about the place I now call home:

I've lived in Wagga Wagga for just over four years.

I moved here at the end of 2010 for work and lucky for me Tony decided to come too and could study at the university. He's since finished his Honours and PhD in Fine Art. When I lived in Sydney, I worked at a television station and while it was an eye-opening first job, I spent a lot of time on the computer and on the phone. I was desperate to record stories face-to-face, which I knew I’d be able to do here. 

In my job interview I had to talk a little about the town and not having time to visit, I did some research online. I was telling Tony that it was known as the ‘land of many cows’ and he laughed and corrected me, apparently it was the land of many crows.  It didn’t come up in the interview, so I still got the job. 

It was our first experience of living outside a city.

Tony and I both grew up in Sydney and while my family had moved to Melbourne and Adelaide when I was a toddler, Sydney was my home. I still remember driving down the main street of Wagga Wagga when we first arrived to look for a place to rent. For some reason I thought it would be much smaller than it is and I’m embarrassed to say that I was reassured when I spotted a Sportsgirl and then Myer.

Settling in, there were a few things that surprised me.

At first they were superficial things, like the shops closing early on a weekend but the most confronting thing for me was arriving home five minutes after I left work. In the first few weeks of my new job that was 5.05pm. It used to take me an hour to an hour and a half to commute to work each day, and that was just one way, so I was used to getting home at around 7 or 8pm. Suddenly I had to work out what I liked doing at night, and for awhile I couldn’t think of anything!

Living here has made me a much better cook.

I liked cooking when we lived in Sydney but had only recently moved out of home and was still getting used to preparing my own dinner of a night (!). We also didn’t have a car, so I used to do my grocery shopping at the train station on the way home. In Wagga Wagga I felt like I had hours to make my dinner and so I started making some really elaborate things. My cookbook collection is now four or five times the size it was when we left Sydney, possibly more. We've made so many things  from scratch while we've lived here, from bread, mayonnaise and custard to our own hot chips, tortillas, waffles and hot cross buns.

It took a little while to make friends.

In our first year here we went back to Sydney a lot - for birthdays, Easter, Christmas, long weekends - whereas now, we tend to travel for specific events and special occasions only. We both made friends through work but it took time to find people we really clicked with and get to know them. Early on I found myself looking wistfully at groups of girlfriends catching up for coffee. Facebook started to bug me too because I kept seeing what my friends were up to and wanted to join them.

We've since made really great friends and I don't think I've received so many home delivered gifts in my life, from cookbook loans to freshly picked flowers, eggs and homemade bread and cheese. I remember meeting Sophie and being really excited because she'd also recently moved from Sydney and had a blog too. I think I read the entire archive in a few days.

The seasons here are really distinct.

In summer, there are times when it's over 40 degrees celsius for days on end. One year I ended up getting a heatwave haircut out of desperation. But the heat is different here, it's dry rather than humid so in a way it's a bit more bearable. Also, we end up driving most places so you're not outdoors or battling the trains in that heat. I love the dramatic fog in winter and have finally invested in a goosedown jacket, because some mornings it's hard to leave the house.

I spend a lot of time on the road and working in different country towns.

On our first trip to Wagga Wagga, I was still on my green P-plates and Tony had to teach me about driving on the highway. I had to build up my confidence quickly because while I work in Wagga Wagga, I have to travel right around the region for work. I’ve learnt how to approach cows in a car (you have to keep moving really slowly because their peripheral vision isn’t great) and found freckles on my face for the first time and now wear a lot of sunscreen.

Driving around the region is so different to driving in the city, it’s quite meditative, and I’ve become a big podcast listener. Directions are pretty funny too, often I drive to one town and turn left and drive for another 45 minutes, reach the next town and turn right and that’s it. I’ve also found cute cafes in different towns, I love Nest in Tumbarumba, The Red Door in Narrandera, Ajanta in Coolamon and The Ginger Baker in Bright.

Visiting friends often ask where everyone is at night.

Most people drive or ride a bike around town, so there are times where the streets seem really empty. I used to get really annoyed when people asked me where everyone was but now I can see that the lifestyle here is different. You tend to go to people’s houses more for dinner rather than going out, maybe because there are fewer places to go out, it's not that cheap and everyone has a bit more space at home.

Our house is huge in comparison to our Sydney apartment, we even have a guest room :)

I dreamt of living in a cottage but given the two days we had to find a house, we ended up renting a really functional two bedroom townhouse in a central part of town. While it makes me sound old, I love all the storage we have here. We rented a one bedroom apartment in Sydney and had so much stuff and nowhere to put it so we just lived amongst it. I joke that you could probably do a cartwheel in our current bathroom only because our last bathroom was so small that it didn’t even have a proper door, it had these two mini doors, like the kind of you’d find on a wardrobe. 

One of my favourite things to do is go for a bike ride on a Sunday afternoon.

I bought a fixie shortly after we moved because it’s quite flat here and the roads are very wide. This year I invested in a cute pink helmet and an extra basket for groceries. On a Sunday I like to ride around the streets when they’re quiet, especially in the late afternoon when you can start to smell what people are cooking for dinner. Lately, you can smell the smoke from fireplaces too, which I love. It’s super relaxing and I love discovering unusual houses on new streets and riding along the river. 

My friend Mayan taught me a trick for entertaining guests.

Mayan moved from Sydney to Canberra right about the time we moved here and found that her city friends constantly wanted to know what they were doing next when they visited her. She plans one thing for each day and then lets her friends decide what they’ll do around that, whether it’s hanging around the house, going out for a drink or a bushwalk. It takes the pressure off trying to show people everything the town has to offer or worrying if there isn't much on that weekend.

I like taking people for a walk along the Murrumbidgee river or for a picnic in my favourite park with some pastries from our nice patisserie. Food is a big thing and we almost always take visitors to Mates Gully, Trail St and Tony loves showing friends the local brewery too.

Sometimes I get restless but that happened in the city too.

If we have time and funds, we’ll take a trip to Sydney, Canberra or Melbourne to get our gallery, movie and food fix. Often we'll go because there's a particular exhibition we want to see and each year there's always one doco that I'm busting to see at the movies. 

Embarrassingly, at the end of our first year here we drove to Melbourne for a holiday and I managed to put on 3 kilos in a week because I went nuts eating at all of the cool cafes and restaurants. Since we’ve been here the food scene has changed a fair bit, with new places opening up and now an amazing chef has moved to town, so crazy city eating trips might be a thing of the past.

Thanks for reading! This weekend we have a lot of visitors coming from Sydney to celebrate the end of Tony’s exhibition. My parents will be here, and I’m looking forward to showing them all of the new things I’ve discovered since they last visited in 2011. We’ll be having a fancy dinner, checking out the farmer’s market and going for walks.

P.S You might also like two earlier and ongoing series - Real Girl Wardrobes and Sentimental Cakes.

Delivered to your door

18 May 2015

Growing up, I was taught that you should never show up to someone's home empty handed. Now when I'm visiting friends and family in Sydney, I almost always bring food. Here are my favourite places to pick up sweet treats to give as gifts, plus one yummy home dinner service:

Black Star Pastry

I love ordering birthday cakes from Black Star and love any wedding with a Black Star cake! They're well-priced, have grown-up flavour combinations and the presentation is always amazing. I've ordered a pavlova for my Dad's 60th (his favourite) and another solid and special cake is the orange cake with persian fig, which you see here as a breakfast dessert :)

While I haven't tried it, I've seen a lot of beautiful Unbirthday cakes on Instagram and would love to give or receive one as a birthday cake. And if you're a cupcake person, or know one, I've bought a mini gift box from The Cupcake Room before and they wrote my friend's name on a cupcake!

Gelato Messina

Because $20 buys you a lot of gelato and it comes in a cute suitcase-style box. I've bought the smaller $10 box for friends and couples and my family is always excited about the biggest box that fits around a litre and between four and five flavours. I used to panic about having it in the car for 20-30 minutes but the gelato comes firmly packed in a hefty styrofoam box and has survived a one-and-a-half hour trip to the coast.

Kakawa Chocolate

Nearly every week in the lead up to Christmas I stopped by Kakawa on my way home from work. I bought the loveliest little gifts for work and family friends, spending anywhere between $5-$15 per item, and picked up a few fancier chocolates for my friend Angie and Tony. Their Easter chocolates are really inventive and fun, and if I'm travelling back to Wagga the staff pack my chocolate in a foil bag along with a mini ice pack :)

Pana Chocolate

I love Pana's raw chocolate bars because they're dense and flavourful, plus the packaging is lovely too. I'd recommend these treats for health conscious friends, vegans and people who've quit sugar. The desserts are raw so they can't travel too far or in extreme heat but there are solid items like the brazil nut ganache on the menu that've survived a six hour road trip.

The Dinner Ladies

I love cooking for friends especially when they need it most, and while I've had some success sending baked goods in the mail, sometimes cookies just don't cut it. My friend Marina put me onto this dinner service and Tony and I have used it a couple of times to send some love from Wagga Wagga. It's really fun to pick out meals for other people (my favourite part is choosing dessert - we recently sent a plum and hazelnut crumble to friends) and the website lists how much preparation is needed, and the ingredients too. The meals are home delivered and come in a fancy foam box to keep them cool and the women who run it are really helpful if you do need to ring and ask questions.

Have a lovely weekend

16 May 2015

This week has been such a mixed bag, I completed my First Aid certificate, bought a new pair of heels (!) and have been working most nights this week. We have friends visiting from Canberra and Sydney this weekend, which will be a nice warm up before our families and lots more friends visit next weekend to celebrate the end of Tony's exhibition.

Here are some links that kept me entertained this week:

Simple chocolate muffins - perfect for a late night baking.

The crazy (true) story about a couple and a North Korean abduction.

Are some women child less or child-free?

Romance Was Born has just released a May Gibbs inspired collection. Did you know that you can visit her home in Sydney? I'm planning a visit next month :)

And something important, this Sunday is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. I recorded this interview with a uni student from my town and was humbled by her honesty and determination to help others who may be struggling their their sexuality. We made a slideshow together too.

Flowers by Little Triffids.

An adventure blog + mini interview

12 May 2015

I'm reading the best blog at the moment. Kasey Koopmans is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and posting an addictive day-by-day account on her blog The Importance of Elsewhere. She started in Mexico in mid April and will hike all the way to Canada, the PCT's northernmost point.

I knew nothing about the PCT until I read Wild a few years ago, Cheryl Strayed's memoir that details her 1995 solo hike. The book divided my friends but I loved it and found it unexpectedly empowering. It also made me really curious about camping - I've never been before!

If you're reading Kasey's blog, resist the temptation to start with latest post and go back to Day 1 and read until you're up to date. I recommend this because it's a joy to follow her progress in what feels like real-time. She posts most days and is funny and candid about her experience of the trail so far. The photos are stunning too and it's amazing how much the trail and scenery can change each day.

Kasey also does a great job of conveying the simple things that make can her day, from encountering puppies to a bowl of homemade spaghetti, which sound awesome, even to non-campers like me :)

There seems to be a lot of generosity, community and trust on the trail. I love reading about the different Trail Angels Kasey's met in the first month of her trip, generous folk who live in towns along the trail and open their homes to PCT hikers. Many of them are happy to cook for their guests, and drive them back to the trail when they're ready.

This family even came up with Kasey's trail name - Double Happiness, or DubHaps as she's now known.

Over the weekend I emailed Kasey to see if I could share some of her photos here, and snuck in two short questions. Here's her reply from somewhere in California:

How are you writing and posting your blog from the trail? 

I take little notes through out the day - funny things I overhear, songs that are stuck in my head, memorable views, run-ins with fauna - and then before I go to bed I string it all together in the comfort of my sleeping bag. Whenever I have good enough service, I upload to the blog which is usually in towns.

What are you most looking forward to at your next town stop?

What am I looking forward to most?! Big breakfasts, pizza and washing my hands in hot running water.

Thank you Kasey! I hope you can check out her blog, and here's something fun, you can send trail mail or virtually shout her breakfast.

Photos by Kasey Koopmans.