the Northern Rivers

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We moved around a lot when I was a kid.

Every couple of years it was a new school, new landscapes and new friends.

There was a constant however…. returning each summer holiday to the green and lush northern rivers, home to my mum’s extended family and the place where my dad met my mum.

Otherworldly and slow paced, it’s big rivers, sugarcane farms, little old towns full of verandahed wooden cottages seemed magical to us.

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Flowers and vines grew in profusion, colorful rosellas swooped above our heads, frog and cicada choirs accompanied our dinner and everything was different. Houses had sleep outs, screened and covered porches, where we slept on the hot humid nights, wriggling, tossing and turning on squeaky old iron beds.

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Even the furniture was different. Small cane chairs and tables, ornate wooden dressing tables, picture frames with sea shells and crocheted doilies on every surface, and especially over the milk jug to keep pesky flies and bugs out.

Electric storms would rattle the house.We’d watch lightning strikes and count for the thunderclap, measuring the miles between us and it. Tropical rain would pound the tin roof for hours and we would squeal in fear and excitement.

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The main highway was still 2 lanes, and instead of bridges there were punts, big river ferries that carried cars and trucks across. The punt operators would signal cars on, and then switch on to pull us across the river on submerged iron ropes. At the same time another punt would leave from the other river bank and pass by on its parallel run.It was a 24/7 operation but at Christmas the cars would line up for miles, and us kids would run to count how many were waiting and to tell those at the end of the line just how many were ahead of them! 115 cars one time.

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Now big bridges cross the rivers and there is only one little punt left, on the back road to Grafton, moving traffic from one river island to another. I take my Californian family that way whenever I can, so they can experience the slow down, wait your turn silent crossing ( chanting a soft prayer “please don’t build a bridge, please don’t build a bridge”.)

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The Clarence is the biggest river on the East Coast, and it’s islands are big enough for hamlets and farms. Fishermen plie the entrance for the famous Yamba prawns, everyone tries for flat head and mullet from their tinnys and some pubs have docks. Sunset over the big expanse of river is glorious. north17

Further north is Byron Bay, hipper and quicker and home to new age celebrities and movie stars. A whole industry devoted to beauty and awareness and creativity, and real estate prices to match.Hatted restaurants and music festivals and flights to Sydney and Melbourne several times a day.

Our stretch of coastline is about 100 miles of empty, golden beaches, punctuated by bushy headlands and rivers. The towns at the rivers mouth grow slowly, settled mostly by retirees, always a bowling club and a lot of unattractive brick veneer homes w a boat or caravan and man shed in the back. National parks rule so development is limited.Investors from the city want views, preferably from modern multi story complexes so even cool architecture is in short supply!

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Our town, Iluka is completely surrounded by National Park and a listed rainforest, so the beaches are snug against forest and sometimes we see kangaroos on the beach, once an emu!

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Within the 100 mile swath of Northern Rivers area are big rivers which meander across rich farmland, sugarcane farms near the coast, cattle farms inland and timber getting up in the mountains. Everything grows like crazy, and there is a whole category of country bush foods that everyone grows, cooks and eats: macadamia nuts, finger limes, grammas and chokos, pumpkins and potkins,passion fruits,pawpaws and mangos, lilly pillies and rosellas. Oysters,oysters,oysters .

Retro,hip and artisan all at once!

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Tourists drive through en route to the cities, lots of surfers and backpackers seek out the empty beaches and the little towns swell at weekends with Queenslanders, escaping high rise, overdeveloped coastline and looking to recreate their childhood seaside holidays….walking miles on the beach, bodysurfing and swimming, fishing from an old aluminum tinny in the river and eating fish and chips from the fisherman’s co-op.

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I’m so happy that the northern rivers are once again a constant in my life.

 

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Beryl’s Scones

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My mum, Beryl, loves nothing better than a good “Devonshire Tea”…

I can’t measure the miles we’ve driven or the times we’ve travelled to out of the way craft shops and cafes in small towns ‘cos mum heard they “did a good afternoon tea”.
And understand that “good” is more than just good – it’s an all encompassing concept that includes the tea, the presentation, the staff or owner, the cups, saucers and plates, and finally the scones and cream!

Good afternoon tea: 2 fresh scones, whipped cream, option of butter and homemade jam. Nice cups and saucers. Good sized teapot, preferably one not individual pots. Tea strainer if needed. Cosies optional.

The irony is, rarely are the scones anywhere near as good as mum’s.
Too often dry and chewy (heresy) or gummy and heavy (sigh with disappointment) we spend almost as much time discussing the dreadful attempt as actually enjoying those that pass the test!
“Most people just can’t make a decent scone these days”
This is followed by remembrance of bad scones past and the worst offenders if known by name.

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Beryl downplays her cooking, and scones in particular, with a ” Well…..I don’t do that much now” which reduces the rest of us to out loud laughter. Open up the kitchen cupboards and there are tupperware boxes with little jam drops, pastry cases for lemon curd, coconut or shortbread cookies and maybe a slice or two (hopefully the caramel one, but there’s an almondy apricot one that runs a close second).
Then in the freezer at least 6-8 scones from the last batch “just in case someone pops in”.

No greater sin than having to offer a store bought biscuit to accompany the cup of tea. Better to go the savory route with cheese and tomato on crackers than plate the Iced Vovos or Kingstons for company.

Beryl’s tips for scones: make them quickly with as little handling as possible (easier said than done!).
And note that the recipe is just a starting point as she doesn’t use commercial measuring cups but rather a particular tea cup and spoons from the drawer.

2 cups of self raising flour
2 dessert spoons of caster sugar
1/2 cup of cream (heavy whipping cream in the US)
1/2 a cup of milk
1 egg

Beat the eggs and sugar till creamy. Beryl uses a hand mixer.
Stir in the cream and milk.
Add the flour, mixing w a knife.

Flour the counter and gently pat out the dough.

Cut out the scones w/ a cutter (or a teacup or empty tin can)

Place on a tray, brush with an egg wash or a little milk, and bake in a 200 degree C oven for 12-15 minutes (fan forced/convection). Serve with freshly whipped cream (absolutely no sweeteners or flavoring) and good jam.

Hierarchy of Jams:
Dark, rich berry jams like blackberry, raspberry, strawberry or blueberry. Maybe a goopy sticky apricot. Or go avant grade w tropicals like mango-ginger or pineapple guava. Lemon or passionfruit curd may be ok (and in our mind a little pretentious) but never a marmalade, which are just for breakfast and toast!

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A visit to the UK and exploration of Devonshire and Cream Tea haunts confirmed what we already knew: the aussie bush version was better. Mum didn’t take to the clotted cream, or heavy triangular scones we had in Scotland but she did love that everywhere we went there was strong black tea in a pot, served with milk and sugar and a pretty plate of cakes.

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Special once in a lifetime pilgrimages to Fortnum and Mason and Claridge’s were amazing, beautiful and ritualistic with silver service, petite sandwiches, specialty Darjeelings and tiered cake stands full of eclairs and petit fours.
Never to be forgotten, but we couldn’t wait to get back home and have scones from Beryls oven, dollops of whipped cream, yummy home made jam and bolstering amounts of Liptons tea.

Afternoon tea heaven.

And from across the other side of the Pacific  I think maybe any afternoon tea with my mum is heaven 🙂

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