Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pavlova so much more than dessert to Aussies

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SUMMER is arriving in Australia and to me that means two things -- the sugar cane harvest is nearing its end and a frosty slice of pavlova is on its way.

Australia doesn't really have a national dish despite what you may hear about the meat pie.

Like Canadians we were too busy roaming vast uncharted territories to worry about what was for dinner and ended up settling for British food without realizing the contradiction in terms.

Credulous souls, Australians spent the 19th century believing black pudding (sausage made by cooking animal blood) was a perfectly reasonable item to place inside the human digestive system.

Then somewhere in the 1930s this wondrous, blinding white meringue dessert named after the Russian ballet dancer Anna Pavlova was conjured up and Australian cuisine suddenly had a dash of chic.

A crust crispy on the outside, yet light and fluffy on the inner, pavlova provides a delicious bed for a pile of fresh cream and fruit. Saturated with sugar, the pav is so much more than a simple source of cholesterol.

To truly understand its glory, its contribution to the national character and its wonderful status as a symbol of summer, I must take you to the land where its principal ingredient came from.

On the sprawling sugar cane farms of far North Queensland where I grew up, and where a frosty summer pav in the fridge is as Australian as a melanoma, the crushing (harvesting) dominates life's cycle, starting in mid-winter and ending late November as the summer holidays loom.

One night in June a group of muttering men would assemble in a paddock near our house, wetted index fingers pointed to the stars to test the wind.

Then, at some tacit but mutually agreeable time, one would suddenly seize a drip-fed kerosene flame-thrower from a truck and torch a perfectly good crop of sugar cane.

Orange flames would leap into the night sky as kangaroos and possums, fur ablaze, fled the paddock into the jaws of our dog -- a dour old dingo whose ancient soul revelled in all this wild pyromania.

And for the next six months the district was a war zone, thundering with tractors and semi-trailers blazing through the smoke and dust, shearing the blackened fields of sugar cane.

Our neighbour Bob McNichol, who helped dad, would roar past our house every 30 minutes hauling out cane bins, always appearing half a metre above the seat of his battered Ford 5000 tractor as he bounced down rock-strewn headlands.

Blue singlet, shorts, a cigarette clamped between his teeth, he'd grip the wheel with the determination of an infantryman clutching his carbine until he saw us kids waving.

Then he'd deliver a literal high-speed standing ovation, standing in the "stirrups" and performing a hand-clapping, sky-punching display of exuberance which had us believing this cane carting business must be more fun than tying fire crackers to cane toads.

Around November, with the swelling mulberry-coloured clouds muttering of the wet season's return, the madness would end. Dad would crown his last bin with a broken tree bough and leave it and a six-pack of Cairns Draught for the semi-trailer drivers. The soot would clear, the mill towns would wail with sirens as the last of the cane disappeared through the crushers and the dog would gaze wistfully at denuded fields that had provided so many pre-cooked dinners.

And preparations would begin for the end-of-harvest-party, the official venue for an annual competition among the district's women who coveted the title of Pavlova Princess -- the Queen of Cholesterol.

The week before the party the women would grimly lay out their weaponry on the kitchen table -- fine sugar, white vinegar, baking soda, corn flour, egg whites, vanilla, fresh cream.

The passion fruit pav was and remains the staple, but the pav is like great art -- rules are broken, boundaries redefined.

There's the peach, the strawberry, the rustic simplicity of the mandarin pav, the exuberance of the fruit salad.

At the party there might be other edible items of wonder. Watermelon wedges marinated in Asti Spumanti wine, coloured cocktail onions or kabana and Kraft cheese stuck on a cocktail stick and implanted in a pineapple -- the effect resembling that of a startled porcupine.

But nothing matched the pav. There could be 10 of them, all taking centre stage on the table and we kids could gorge to make ourselves sick, safe in the knowledge more were to come.

Christmas was only weeks away.

We'd spend it in the state capital of Brisbane where my aunts, despite the limitations imposed upon them by their city addresses (structured activities for children, familiarity with restaurant etiquette, no dingoes in the dining room) would ensure pavs were plentiful.

For they, like all right-thinking Australians, knew that when summer is upon us a frosted pavlova is not a luxury but a symbol of patriotic fraternity.

The dish links region to region, country to city, state to state.

Come summer and it is, in fact, a national imperative -- the imperative of the pav.

Michael Madigan is the Free Press

correspondent in Australia.

He writes about politics for the

Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2007 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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