Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Brief History of Wine

As my current job involves selling vineyard netting, research often brings up interesting information related to wine.

In researching one particular vineyard, it was revealed that the wine maker qualified at the Montpellier University of Oenology and during his compulsory one year military service, he was the Legions wine purchasing adviser. This sounds like a particularly cushy job and also da istinctly French occupation for an army officer.

This isn't an original French idea however as in the days of the Roman Empire, soldiers on active duty were given two pounds of bread per day, meat, olive oil, and wine.

A major item in the sustenance of the French soldier during the First World War, and extremely important to his morale, was the daily ration of wine. This wine, or 'pinard', was a simple red country wine but, of a kind to which the peasant soldiers were no doubt well accustomed to and enjoyed.

Interestingly, after the Second World War, the decline in standards was linked to the rationing of the fermented grape. An article from Time magazine in 1952 illustrates this:

The proposition—to a Frenchman—was absurdly simple: if the French army is not all it once was, it is due to the fact that the French soldier is not getting enough wine. "Wine," explained Gaullist Deputy Gabriel Seynat, a physician and winegrower himself, "contains phosphates, glycerine, iron, minerals and vitamins. It furnishes the organism with tissue and energy. It aids digestion, increases cerebral activity, appeases fatigue and creates the strength to work."

Moreover, continued the deputy, wine "induces a state of euphoria that gives one confidence."
Faced with such self-evident truth, France's National Assembly last week gave preliminary approval to a bill raising the French soldier's daily wine ration from 500 to 750 grams (approx.1½pts.) a day. There was not a single dissenting vote.

Today France uses a ration called the "Ration de Combat Individuelle Rechauffable" (Combat Ration Individual Reheatable), or RCIR. A single ration contains a whopping 3200 calories and is intended to provide the nutritional needs for one soldier for one day or 3 meals.

Each RCIR meal box contains two ready-cooked entrees, an appetizer, one package of instant soup, a cheese spread, salted and sweet crackers, a breakfast kit, sugar, an energy bar, a chocolate bar, chewing gum, caramels, hard candies, multipurpose paper towels, water purifying pills, and a reheating kit with matches, fuel tablets, and a disposable folding stove. A handy piece of survival kit I'm sure you'll agree.

Until a few years ago, each came also with a bottle of wine. Now the wine is rationed separately.

Perhaps it will only be a matter of time before it makes a reappearance?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Rugby League World Cup: Ireland vs Tonga

The World Cup in 2007 had finally got me hook, line and sinker on the game of rugby which up until then, I wasn't interested in much beyond the 6 Nations. It was probably a good thing to occur before we left for New Zealand in Otcober of that year as it is both an obsession and a national past-time.

As a full-time Ireland rugby union supporter who had only recently begun to enjoy watching other unrelated countries battle it out on the field, I was introduced to the game of rugby league which seemed somewhat pedestrian and tame compared to union.

There were no line-outs and the rucks seemed to be token gestures. I attempted watching a few games of the NZ Cup but I found it boring and not worth my time, although in hindsight this may have been the problem.

Over the course of the year spent in the land of the never-ending rugby game, I had the opportunity to catch the occasional league match but it wasn't until relatively recently I've taken a more keen interest culminating in the, unfortunately rather dull, grand final between Manly and Melbourne.

However, what better chance to get into league than the World Cup itself and on my very own doorstep no less!

This year was Australia's chance to host and we had bought tickets for both Ireland games in the Blarney Army section and were only a few rows back from the front/middle section yesterday.
Fantastic support from the crowd which was acknowledged by the players and I think it gave them a lift at times. The Tongans were very frustrated during a lot of the game and had 3 of their players sin-binned and it could easily have been more. The lead changed 6-7 times from what I read and it was certainly nail-biting. When Tonga scored the clincher around the 76th minute, they purposely time wasted by moving all their players back leaving no one up at our end to take the conversion.

Then on the remainding plays they faked injury and slowed the ball up to an extremely unsportsman like way that obvioulsy drew derision from the Irish fans.

An exceedingly disappointing finish but an exhilarating game to watch and if we can put on a similar performance against Samoa it should be another cracker.

Photos to follow shortly...

Lou's Birthday Dinner

As you might imagine, there are quite a few restaurants in Sydney offering varying styles of cuisine which can make choosing somewhere to eat quite difficult for a special occasion, namely Lou's birthday.

However, the search was narrowed somewhat by the desire to eat somewhere overlooking the harbour leaving a dozen or more places on the shortlist to be whittled down to a chosen locale.
The long process involving magazines, internet searches and old fashion requests from people to recommend somewhere ended in our choosing of the Waterfront Restaurant which is nestled by the Rocks and Circular Quay.

A week before our planned dinner we were in the area winding down on a Friday evening when we noticed that there was an Italian restaurant further down the esplanade which looked inviting.

After checking the menu, wine list and our approval of Italian cuisine over seafood, I cancelled the reservation at the Waterfront and made a new booking at the Italian Village.

The next day I recieved a phonecall enquiring as to why I had cancelled a booking and then remade it for the same date and time. It turns out that they are co-managed restaurants occupying what was once a goods warehouse in ye olde worlde. It certainly explained how they were able to cater for over 800 people.

The weather during the week had been a mixed bag of humid dry heat and heavy rain but by Saturday afternoon, it was a pleasant temperature hitting the mid-twenties.

We arrived an hour early so we could try one of the bars in the Rocks and after passing by a few bars which were spilling out onto the street, managed to get a seat outside a busy pub off a side street.

I may be out of touch not knowing enough about Sydney but, like many places, the city could certainly do with a few more bars as everywhere, especially this early on a Saturday evening, was already at bursting point.

One huge plus in regards to bars in Sydney is that they do have more international beers on tap as opposed to the predominant Kiwi beers which, lets face it, leave a lot to be desired.

On arrival at the welcome podium, after announcing my name and reservation time, I was told that there was not one to be found. I had my suspicions regarding my cancellation and rebooking but you would have assumed this was not only cleared up in a phonecall but followed up by pencilling in the said booking either during or immediately following the phonecall.
However, they were more than accomodating and immediately led us to a table at the centre front exactly where I would have chosen if given an open invitation to choose from an empty restaurant.

Unlike the adjacent restaurants in the terraced warehouse conversion where punters can walk within inches of the front tables if they so choose, the Italian Village had a sectioned area of lawn in front so there was a grand view of the harbour overlooking the Opera House.
As we perused the menu it was hard not to gaze up and over the water as the Opera House was lit up in pink to highlight breast cancer awareness and the fundraising walk that was taking place that night.

Pink lights or not, the building looks a hundred times better at night and taking a walk along the quay when the sun goes down is highly recommended.

For dinner, I ordered the proscuitto wrapped loin of veal with caramelised mediteranean vegetables, chilli honey sauce and roast olives. Lou had the roast Chicken 'Carbonara' with olives, prosciutto, baby inions and parmesan cream. Both were quite delicious but we had to wait quite some time for them to arrive but we had ordered the bread selection as a back-up/entree so between that and the bottle of Devil's Corner Pinot Grigio we were all good.

We were a little undecided as to our next move but with a constant parade of pink-clad customed walkers, the view and the conversation, we decided to settle in at the restaurant and ordered a bottle of Ninth Island riesling and tasting platter of the dessert menu which consisted of tiramisu, grappa and Vanilla zabaglione with fresh berries and pistachio biscotti, homemade gelato and a sorbet Selection, roast almond, nougat and milk chocolate cate with orange ice cream and a few others. It was a five-star platter and needless to say couldn't finish it but made a damn good effort.

A brilliant night all round.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Closely Observed Trains

In a continuation of train-related observations, I endured my first journey this morning in the standing area as all the seats were taken.

Usually I don't have a problem finding a seat and there are several options available. Each side of the train is divided by two sides of seating, one suggesting 3 people could and should be sitting on them and the other with apparent room for two.

As with usual seating etiquette, people take up seating individually in both seating rows until you have to choose to sit right beside someone (the 2 seater) or have a gap between you and a random traveller (the 3 seater).

There is also a bizarre single seat available at either end of the carriage which almost no-one sits in unless there is no other option available as it requires squeezing past a 2 seater and playing leg hockey with the person opposite until a happy medium is reached.

This morning was a different matter entirely as from the second I woke up I was aware of a heavy rain outside pounding the ground. It was time to don the waterproof jacket.

As I caught a lift into the train station, the traffic was crawling along the roads with flooding already evident in huge pools of water jutting out several yards from the pavement which would give any passer by a second and considerably colder shower of the morning.

The platform at the station was instantly more crowded than I had seen before and I guessed the train might be the preferred option than walking on such a miserable day.

As the train pulled up and the doors opened, I made my usual vault for the upper section only to find it completely full and I made my way up the aisle from one end to the other looking like a spectator at a tennis rally unable to locate a single seat to squeeze into, not even the really stupid single seats.

Another passenger met me as she climbed the stairs and as I was looking to go down. We resigned ourselves to the huddled masses in the standing section.

I find this method of travelling incredibly awkward. Packed in like sardines there is nowhere to look if you are standing in the centre. Sure, you can glance around but you'll proabably catch someones eye and be forced to avert your look lest you look like a weirdo eye stalker. You can attempt the long distance stare between the heads of others to catch a glimpse of the outside world of graffittied walls and the blurred outline of stations or you can look at the ground and feel like a muppet.

I found myself doing all of the above and playing musical pole dancing, moving around it as people got on and off with the hustle and flow of early morning commuting.

Recently, RailCorp suggested replacing all 3 seaters with 2 seaters to leave more room for standing passengers. I suggest using the money for more carriages. I get the feeling that people who make decisions about these things (obviously) don't use public transport themselves. If they did, they'd probably never do so again, remove all seating and hand out mandatory blindfolds so everyone can stand and not creep anyone out with forlorn stares.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Breakin' The Law

The train is by far and away the easiest way to get around Sydney (if you don't own a car). As with most stations in major cities, tickets can be bought either from a machine or booth and are snatched up by the turnstyle when you exit at your destination. Sydney also operates a coloured weekly ticket based on suburbs and their distance from the centre. These tickets also allow access to ferry and bus services.

After using single and return tickets for trips into town until I had a regular job and a daily return route, I decided to buy a green weekly ticket which would allow me access to two ways in and out of work.

The first is a much slower if more pleasant journey by ferry from Circular Quay which takes a little over an hour in itself and also involves walking 30 minutes to get there followed by a 20 minute wait for the next ferry. Even by taking the train from This was the preferred method for the first week until I discovered an easier way.

The second way is arguably easier and faster involving a journey from Central station to Strathfield and catching a lift on the community bus that drops me off outside the apartment which takes around an hour and 20 minutes so this is the best option which shaves over an hour from taking the ferry.

Nevertheless, the train is not without it's hiccups. When we were heading to Campbelltown on Friday evening, I used my greenpass to enter Circular Quay station but once the train passed Kingsgrove, it was out of the allocated zone which I had totally forgotten about. There is no turnstyle at the last stop and on the way there from last station, the train guards entered the carriage and asked Lou and I (since we were the only ones there) for our tickets. Lou, not having any use for a green card yet had bought a ticket and was OK. I casually handed over my pass awaiting a brief inspection and for it to be handed it back.

"Are you aware this card doesn't cover this zone?"
"You don't come this way often do you?"
"No I don't - I'm out visiting my cousin, why?"

At this point he leaned closer for dramatic effect.

"This card doesn't take you out here. Now ,you're aware that I could fine you $200 right now on the spot, but I'm sure you don't want that?"
"No, I don't"
"Well, I'll see you at the ticket machine when you get off and we'll get you that ticket OK?"
I wasn't the only one to dodge the fare albeit I wasn't aware I was doing it on purpose either. There were a few people in front of me under the same circumstance although they were considerably inebriated and cocky about the whole affair.

Still, better fine than fined.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sydney Aqauarium

The Sydney Aqauarium is situated on the waterfront alongside many wharf restaurants and bars. It costs around $30 per adult and there is a $50 dollar ticket which allows access to a wildlife centre adjoining the aquarium.

Once inside, you are greeted by walls of tanks full of sea life both piscine and crustacean. As interesting as these initial displays were, we were drawn towards the centre display enclosure that had a crocodile in it. It lay motionless by the enclosure door so much so that I thought it was a fake. However, this whisper had just been uttered before it's jaws opened and closed and it back-glided into the water, it's eyes resting just above peering out like you would have seen on any documentary.

In the corridor between the main rooms, many more displays were exhibiting many strange and wonderful creatures from giant crabs, tortoises, tropical fish and the more sedentary starfish and suchlike.

One of the main attractions of the aquarium was the shark pool which had numerous kinds including flat-heads and ones that would make you wet your wetsuit if you met them in the sea - typically gliding through the water with their beedy eyes looking out into the dimly lit water possibly seeking an exit, probably resigned to the fact that they know there is no escape and so endlessly loop around waiting to be fed.

It's an interesting place and worth the money to see the life aquatic up close and personal (behind safety glass) that you would never (hope to) see in real life.

All photos are here

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Cycling Around Homebush Bay

There is a huge parklands nearby called Bicentennial Park which is a 100 hectare natural heritage site which includes wetlands and 40 hectares of beautiful open green fields.

There is over 35km of cycle tracks, BBQ areas and fantastic paths Blaxland Park along the Parramatta River and the mid 20's temperature was ideal for bringing along a picnic and ejoying a Saturday afternoon.

We cycled around 10km through Newington Armory, Blaxland and up to Wilson Park before looping back to Wentworth Common where we stopped for lunch but couldn't find anywhere shady so doubled back to the Armory where we found a quiet spot overlooking the river.

A great place to cycle and we'll be doing it again soon...

Other photos here.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Shire

This is the view from some friends of my cousin who threw a BBQ party last Sunday.

It's in an area around 30km outside Sydney called The Shire and it's in quite an idylic setting overlooking a small lake.

On the other side of the hill you can see all the way into the city although we didn't make the walk ourselves because the league final was on - which proved quite dull as Manly destroyed Melbourne 40-0.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Rear Window

We've settled down in our shared house and have the weekend to ourselves and all I want to do is put my feet up and relax which is exactly what I'm doing.

The weather is particularly wet and miserable (like a Northern Ireland summer) but I'm not too bothered as I'm not going anywhere. Last night there was a lightning storm which looked fantastic but the apartments opposite were blocking the view so all I could see where gigantic flashes from above which lasted a couple of hours.

Above is the view from our bedroom window which looks onto the Sydney Olympic park stadium. I think they might be having the grand final rugby league there tomorrow but we wont be around to find out as we're heading to a place called The Shire where a friend of the family is having a BBQ party. [So you have to travel to Oz to find the shire - we were looking in the wrong country all this time!]

This is the view from the front of the apartment - it's exactly like living in a resort! It's very clean and I wouldn't hesitate to walk around in bare feet.

Today we picked up card passes which mean we can get access to the on-site gym, swimming pool, tennis courts, library etc and community bus so we can catch a lift to nearby places like the ferry and train station - very handy!

Tonight it's a bottle of wine and a movie so the un-winding can run the full gamut of the long weekend. See you next week.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

City Life

Just a quick update on our progress in Sydney.

I started a job last Friday in the CBD only a day after having an interview with an Agency so it's been pretty fast and I've been thrown into the ways of working in the city.

This entails getting up pretty early at 6am and leaving the house at 6.45am to catch the train. Luckily Rebecca drops me off at Meadowbank station where 5 stops later I hop off at Central Station. I only have a quick walk through Belmore Park where there is always something to catch your eye. Usually there is at least one busker and often a puppeteer looking for loose change from those leaving the train on their way to work. There is also a huge flock of pigeons that scatter when someone gets too near. There are also a few vagrants sitting on park benches watching the world go by. Yesterday there were two girls handing out booklets that I thought were monthly arts and entertainment guides but upon receipt turned out to be Jehovah's Witness publications. It was soon deposited in a nearby bin.

I start work ay 8am and luckily there is a decent coffee machine to feed my caffine habit and depending on the time of day and what mood I'm in I flit between a straight up flat white, Moccacino or Cappacino. It's good for waking me up in the morning.

My office is on the 4th floor which in Sydney terms is not very high and the window on both sides looks on to higher and more mundane looking high-rise office storeys.

I leave work at 4pm and walk 30 minutes down the very long Pitt Street to the harbour wharf which has spectacular views over the harbour and of the bridge and opera house. I catch the 4.50 ferry to Homebush Bay which takes around an hour. The ferry goes up the river and at this time of year, the sun sets over the water and lends a magical quality to dusk. As todays temperature was 33c I sat outside and read a book on my journey home, the wind whipping around and providing some relief to the humidity. Tomorrow is set to be 35c but with rain so it should prove interesting.

I get home around 6pm so it's pretty much a 12 hour day and so far I'm coping fine but only time will tell!

It's a bank holiday this weekend and we're meeting up with my cousin for a big BBQ on Sunday so hopefully I should have some more photos to show.

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