A Little Piece of Mine

Inner West Side Story: Head Over Heels for the School of Footwear, Leichhardt

Darren Bischoff sits on a chair, hat slightly skewed, gently tweaking a line of leather with his finger. “No, see how it pulls here,” he says pinching it flatter. “Try that.” Off goes the student in the cat’s eye glasses to correct the straps of her Roman holiday sandals. Informed by word-of-mouth, a constant flow of students has for the last five years cobbled together their own bespoke shoes in this modest Parramatta Road shopfront under Bischoff’s expert guidance. Bischoff, whose work has appeared in exhibitions at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and Sydney’s Powerhouse, in theatre productions and the collections of high street fashion labels, set up the School of Footwear  in Leichhardt following the closure of the shoemaking school in Ultimo, at which he trained, in 2010. At the end of the long table, surrounded by tiers of wooden shoe blocks and clunky machinery, with bucolic boots, sophisticated heels, and kittenish slippers scattered about, a woman is painstakingly stitching pattern pieces together on a sewing machine, while another is deftly tracing a pattern onto coloured sheets of leather. Each shoe takes weeks to perfect, progressing from illustration to cardboard pattern, then on to a scrap leather sample―the tweaking phase. Next, the pattern is traced onto the real leather or fabric, carefullly cut out, pulled over a wooden shoe last, and finally stitched into place. Beginners start off by making a sandal (chosen from one of three examples they bring in to discuss with Bischoff), moving onto a shoe, then advancing to a boot. While the idea of moseying off to Florence and studying under an Italian shoe maestro is not without appeal, it’s a tad cheaper to indulge your footwear fetish in Leichhardt, which still flys the tricolore proudly. A shoe session plus espresso at Bar Sport, zabaglione gelato at Bar Italia, pizza (so good!) at Moretti, linguine gamberi at Castel Mola, and a stroll around the fading Italian Forum. The Forum really does have the feel and colour of the trad Italian piazza, just, umm, without the people! Shame about the empty shops and struggling restaurants. Oh wait, that’s not such an unfamiliar scene in Italy either thesedays.
The School of Footwear, 367 Parramatta Road, Leichhardt. Tel: 0401 385 957. 6-week beginner course costs $600; 8-week intermediate course (shoe) costs $800; 10-week advanced course (boot) costs $1000. 

School of

 © School of Footwear

Lima Been (Memories of Peru #3): Buddy, can you spare a…

Three months in and we’ve been exposed to a host of things Peruvian – ceviche (cubed, raw fish ‘cooked’ in lemon), a wedding (2 hour church service, 11pm-4am reception complete with funny hats and masks at 2am), a birthday party (a groaning outdoor buffet table, skewered beef hearts, a musician playing a wooden box and everyone pretending not to freeze), a baptism (for a 5 and 7 year old), and Haydée is in need of a loan.

So there we were seated around the table with Haydée explaining that hospital bills for her (since deceased) daughter had piled up prior to our arrival, money had been borrowed and now needed to be paid back otherwise they would lose their house … so could we oblige by Monday (it was Friday).

Our reticence seemed downright peculiar to her. We had so much she politely pointed out. Point taken.

We tossed up whether to A) give her the money, or B) not give her the money and never be able to look her in the eye again, C) pretend it never happened  - err no, scratch C.

Peruvian colleagues advised that option B was the only response otherwise we’d be opening the gate to a stream of requests. Instead we went for A, gave the US$500 and explained that it was a once only deal. No more official loan demands came although there were lots of thinly disguised hints – “$200 fell out of my skirt on the way to the bank”, “My cousin stole my money from my purse when I visited him in the jungle”, “my husband lost his job”, “my son just found out he has a baby”.  Regardless, she managed to keep her house and a year later announced that they were building a new one.

Months later, the driver  requested a few hundred to buy school books for his children, and we yielded. The appointed pay-back day – 2 months hence – came and went. After 6 months we asked and he nonchalantly advised that he would pay up the following month.

Much to his surprise we rejected his subsequent request for US$4000 to finance his bid for a share in a school canteen, “a sure fire, money-making machine”, he insisted. When quizzed why us and not the bank he cheerfully explained “because banks charge interest!” A year down the track when asked how the canteen is coming along, he revealed that his cousin was going down the tubes because of it, and somewhat gleefully congratulated himself on not joining him.

Inner West Side Story: Elvy’s Meats, Heritage Butcher, & The Urban Café + Store, a Corner Shop Makeover, Leichhardt

The corner shop, that faithful neighbourhood institution, has been fast disappearing in recent times as supermarkets with their ever expanding range of foods and ingredients and service station chains open til all hours squeeze the life out of them. In my ‘hood, though, there are two little lights bucking the trend.

John Elvy is your traditional kind of butcher. He’s been in the business for 60 years and knows a quality beast when he sees one. Carcasses come in whole and are cut to suit the customers; nothing is pre-packaged and cling-filmed to death. There are no fancy pants counters and condiments either and no spatchcock wrapped in prosciutto and vine leaves or marbled wagyu beef burgers; instead it’s beef eye fillet cut how you like it, quintessential T-bone steaks, butterflied leg of lamb, free-range pork chops, frenched rack of lamb, lemon and parsley coated chicken schnitzels, and lots of handmade sausages: fiery chorizo, finger-sized chipolatas, lamb and rosemary, beef, pork, chicken and even gluten-free options–“the best in town” crows the billboard. Good taste reigns over gourmet whims. When John sold up and retired a few years ago, the new owners of the business, also family butchers, persuaded him to stay on a few days a week. They’ve kept alive the old-style butcher vibe, embelishing it with framed photos of ancient abbatoirs and meat handlers, a giant floor scale, cursive window lettering and the occasional emblematic caricature (Santa Claus touting Christmas hams, the Easter Bunny plugging lamb roasts), but one thing remains unchanged–they’re always up for a chat over a choice cut. Elvy’s Meats, 79 Allen St, Leichhardt, 95695493

Elvy's 2

The owners of the corner store opposite, Sue and Charlie, have renounced the past for the present–with a gentle push from their entrepreneurial son. It’s recently morphed from uninspiring corner shop into a breezy café-cum-grocery dubbed Urban Café + Store. Snappy black metal stands have replaced the outdated shelving,  small blackboards indicate product positions, bread is lodged in rustic wooden boxes, and the tired old floor has been reborn in brillant black. There are now French café-style stools, lattes and double shot espressos (made with Gypsy Espresso dark roasted beans), cannolis, biscottis and croissants courtesy of Haberfield’s Pasticceria Papa, and fresh Lebanese sandwiches made to order while you wait. You can still pick up milk and a paper but nowadays you can feed a coffee fix as you do it. Admittedly it’s not a groundbreaking concept in a big city but in this sleepy little corner of Leichhardt it is. Urban Cafe + Store, 81 Allen St, coffee from 7am-4pm, store open til 9pm.


Inner West Side Story: Majestic Harvest, Gourmet Market, Petersham


Petersham’s Majestic Theatre, a once grand old cinema-turned-roller skating rink, is pulling in a a different kind of crowd thesedays as it takes to its latest role of gourmet grocer with gusto. The Euro-inspired market-cum-deli-cum-providore, the brainchild of co-owners Cheryl and Tim Reen and restauranteur Carlos Ascenso, has a dash of Madrid’s Mercado San Miguel, a pinch of Barcelona’s La Boqueria, a sprinkle of Rome’s Testaccio, and a soupçon of Paris’ Les Enfants Rouges markets all rolled up into this newly restored and reschristened space. Majestic Harvest carries the requisite house-baked sourdough, along with black angus beef pies, spinach and feta rolls, Portuguese custard tarts, fluffy-topped cupcakes, hulking florentines and cherry dense slices at the Dough del Rey bakery; hams, salamis, coppa, porchetta, olives, organic L’Artisan cheeses, including “The Extravagant”, a sybaritic triple cream, and herb or spice infused olive oils at Mercado Europa; on-site filetted flathead, salmon and ocean trout, or flash fried or grilled fish and chips at El Capital; fresh fruit and vegetable centric salads and juices at Abacaxi, as well as shelves brimming with Murray River salt flakes, pistachios, sauces and spices, jams and chutneys, apple jelly and Enmore honey, Comtesse du Barry foie gras and blocks of Comptoir de Cacao chocolate, and a corner filled with seasonal fruit and vegetables. Everything for a take home (or make there) meal. Otherwise, there’s the restaurant led by the ex-head chef of Balmain’s London Hotel proferring basil and Taleggio scrambled eggs with Roma toms, eggs with chorizo and beans, or sticky French toast for breakfast, warm chicken and fennel salad with mint, green beans, housedried tomatoes and mayo (pictured), spaghetti with prawns, zucchini and chilli, charcuterie platters, and crispy skinned barramundi with peppers for lunch—all sourced from the produce counters here. Once the liquour licence is finalised, dinner will be added to the menu and the cosy upstairs wine bar will open for business. Just love what they’ve done with the place, especially the foyer, still framed by Art Deco stairs and banisters and now emblazoned with buckets of blooms—wattle, ranunculus, poppies, sweet peas, daisies and sprays of eucalyptus—courtesy of the Majestic’s resident florist. Majestic Harvest, 49a New Canterbury Road, Petersham, open 7 days a week.

Newcastle: Coal Hearted City Switches to Cool Power

Newcastle 1

“Cool” might not be the first word that springs to mind at the mention of Newcastle, the gritty port town just two hours north of glittering Sydney. No, it’s more likely to be “coal” or “steel”, “dockyards” or even “earthquake”. But the city has reinvented itself big time in recent years, due in major part to the belief and hard slog of some plucky locals. Among its best features: abundant foodie factor (great coffee and cafes, buzzy bars and bistros, a top notch restaurant or two, farmers’ markets and specialist delis); ample natural beauty (ocean baths and surf beaches); art and architecture (The Lock-Up artspace, This is Not Art festival, Customs House), and an easy-going, come-on-in, Novocastrian attitude. After a few days schlepping about the city, these are my picks to sit, snap, sip and shop.

Darby Street: A Veggie Monkey breakfast–eggs, hash brown, garlicky mushrooms, spinach, tomato relish, haloumi & chunky toasted sourdough–at the Three Monkeys Café. A caffeine reboot at Frankie’s Place with a side order of head tatts and beanied noggins. Smoked salt & vinegar crisps followed by juicy pink rib eye with sweet and sour peppers at The Bowery Boys. Stop off at High Tea with Mrs Woo if only to lean on the gorgeous wooden counter and eye the esthetic dresses and ceramic bowls. Buy cowboy boots and a very flash Bonzai Kitten flamingo print underwear twinset to pair with them at Ramjet. Or grab a flitty Miss Twiggy dress for extra coverage. Fantasise about redecorating at Willows Home Traders–that Scando style sideboard in sleek blonde wood, Ali MacNabney-Stevens daubings, the Bonnie & Neil cockatoo crested tea-towel, an Icelandic sheepskin butterfly chair, the white marble dining table, those green velvet pillowcases all in a van on their way to my house–now! Snap up gloriously retro tin can candles–Dr Salty’s Carribean Spice, Snake Oil or Lightning Moonshine all made in the Hunter Valley by the Anvil Creek Co–at Blackbird Corner. It’s a locavore kind of vibe–they do their own screen printed t-shirts (Anorak), along with their line of funky print dresses with labels to match (My Fascist Mother, Wayward Girl), plus handmade cards and notebooks from all over, jewellery, Blossom & Cat hottie bottie covers, and cluey, creative mags the likes of Peppermint, Wooden Toy Quarterly, and Frankie. The perfect place to browse and buy–something, everything.

Hunter Street: Healthy, wholesome and housemade baked beans in a red-hot ramekin beside a serve of corncakes, avocado, bacon and tomato salsa at Blue Door. Lots to like about the food, the breezy welcome and the berry, mango and mint frappé. Take a stroll across the road and around the corner to Centenary Antiques Centre chockful of retro collectibes and nostalgic tat, including a vintage (aka pre bags of single origin coffee beans) grocery store. It’s all about the vine at Reserve Wine Bar, apt given the proximity of the vinuous Hunter Valley. Offerings veer from a Riverina Pinot Grigio to a Provençal Rosé, from a Murumbateman Merlot to a Spanish Rioja via a Fat Lamb Shiraz. Buffs and bozos alike fit right in here because these guys believe that the best wine is the one you actually like, not the one you’re supposed to like. Phew! Try the just battered flathead with truffle chips at lunchtime, washed down with a glass of cool rosé. Take in the hubbub of architectural styles–Art Deco, Federation, Italianate, Victorian–up and down the street as you head for contemporary art space The Lock Up. The city’s main police station in a previous life, it plays host to a series of installations, exhibitions, workshops and talks, but nowadays visitors are free to leave the cells and use the loos at any time. 

Elsewhere: Rent a Spinway bike from in front of the can’t-miss-me Crowne Plaza Hotel and cycle the waterfront to Nobby’s Beach, pause for a dip there or at the Newcastle Ocean Baths or press on along Bathers’ Way to the huge Mereweather Beach and Ocean Baths. Slake a thirst on your return at the waterside Honeysuckle Hotel, or wander back cityside to The Edwards, an ex-coin-op laundry turned all round great bar. The brainchild of Chris Johnston (owner of cult cafe Suspension Espresso and cult bass player Chris Joannou (ex-Silverchair), the timber heavy hot spot  dishes up cocktails, craft beers, and rich satisfying food: roast pork shoulder with hot smoked apples, lemon-herb whole roast chicken, garlicky mash, and an ice-cream sandwich with caramelised banana and squashed brittle bits. Oh yes! If you’re at a loose end on a Sunday morning (or Wednesday evening outside of winter), head for the ‘Newy’ Farmers’ Market and stockpile cream-topped Over the Moon milk, free range hens and farm-laid eggs, Red Belly organic beef snags, Mill Creek Shiraz, Wollombi olive oil, and locally picked fruit and veggies.

My first trip back in a long, long, long time, and it won’t be the last.


Oh! You Pretty (Sydney) Things…

One of the world’s great dining destinations? Yeh, I think Sydney can comfortably cosy up to other cities on that list. All that domineering sun and sea, albeit tempered by high rents and labour costs. Even so the food scene is booming, with spots like Surry Hills and Darlinghurst pulling in food focused punters, while neophytes like Chippendale and Redfern, Alexandria and Marrickville are snapping hungrily at their heels. When I left Sydney 18 years ago – these were not the precints for a fine food fix. As a ringlet coiffed hipster in a home deco shop quipped “People come to Redfern on weekends now for breakfast! That’s how much it’s changed.” There’s just so much good stuff out there, everywhere. Potts Point’s Macleay Street is still a magnet, with Monopole serving up all things delicious on plate and in glass.  Old waterside favourites, The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay with its working harbour vista and Catalina on Rose Bay with its beats working spirit, keep on keeping on. Federico Zanellato has introduced highstyle Italian pizzazz to the quiter reaches of Pyrmont, on Sydney Wharf. There’s water about but the vibe is more urban than coastal, although the Aperol apero at LuMi could almost transport you to Capri. Melbourne boy Teague Ezard has unfurled his knife roll over at the sprawling Star Casino, serving up expertly seared meats and sides of candied parsnips to a bunch of folks that gamble on everything but their food. The space is apparently named for a giant lump of BLACK wood that reclines in front of house. Another southern export, Frank Camorra, has grafted his tapas emporia MoVida into Surry Hills. Bocadillos, padrón pimientos and escabeche is Spain in a mouthful. Down the road there’s the breezy, open-plan Nomad, with its Mediterranean-Middle Eastern bent: hummous rubs ceramic rims with foie gras & chicken parfait, chermoula & spatchcock with calamari in olive crumbs, and nearby is the perennial Asian perfection of Longrain. Skip over to Alexandria, which has morphed from Australia’s largest industrial area into a fun place to be without overalls, to The Grounds and the delightful Potting Shed festooned with petal heavy pots, lush hanging greenery, a parrot, garden tools, including mini trowels doubling as menu clips. The food is fresh, unfussy and quite excellent. Food fads come and go – chilli ice cream, pulled pork everything, foams, chia, slow cooked lamb necks, plates to share, natural wines, drinks in jars, kale smoothies, the cronut – but good looking cooking keeps us coming back.

Boathouse salmon

Sashimi of salmon, buttermilk, ponzu, fingerlime &  radish
The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay

Lumi everygreen

‘Evergreen’: sorrel sorbet, lemon & basil granita, mint meringue & minty shisho jelly,
plus parsley salt 
@ LuMi Bar & Dining

Boathouse beetroot

Roast baby beets, goats curd, olive, pinenuts & sorrell
@ The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay


Ceviche of scallops, with charred avocado, sweet corn & puffed wheat @ Monopole


Spelt raviol with pumpkin, chives, burnt butter & pearls of avruga caviar
LuMi Bar & Dining

Boquerone at Movida

A single perfect anchovy with smoked tomato sorbet on a ‘cracker’ @ Movida Sydney

Betel at Longrain

Betel leaves cradling smoked trout, peanut relish & green mango @ Longrain

Screen Shot 2015-04-16 at 11.33.45

Chargrilled carrots with almond dukkah and labne @ Nomad

Chippies at the potting shed

Crisp chippies sprouting from a terracotta pot @ The Potting Shed @ The Grounds, Alexandria

Ezard duch

Tamarind and honey glazed – oh so pink – duck breast, with five spice, rhubarb, spinach and pumpkin @ BLACK by Ezard


Pavlova with strawberries & strawberry sorbet @ Catalina

Potting Shed Tiramisu

Trowel-sized serving of ‘tiramisu’ @ The Potting Shed @ The Grounds, Alexandria

Boathouse LMP

A Lillipution lemon meringue tart @ The Boathouse on Blackwattle Bay