Luxury on a Budget: Afternoon Tea

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I’ve said it before and I still mean it: When you’re trying to save money, luxuries have to come first. It’s not just possible to enjoy a little luxury while sticking to your budget; it’s absolutely essential. If life has no space for a bit of pleasure now and then, what on earth are you budgeting for?

There’s good news for your bank account, though. When it comes to enjoying a luxury, the thing itself is only part of the package. The main point is the quality of the experience. And the good thing about that is that it means you can have a whole lot of indulgence without spending very much. One happy little low-cost luxury enjoyed in Australian homes, schools and workplaces is morning and afternoon tea.

Japan understood the importance of teatime very well, changing the brew from hot matcha or oolong in winter to cold green or barley tea in summer, enjoyed with a variety of sweet or salted snacks. China and Hong Kong enjoy formal and informal teatimes, including yum cha, the ultimate tea break. South Americans sip volcanic mate, while India and the U.K. both enjoy their morning and afternoon tiffin with savouries and sweets (hence the Australian and New Zealander taste for the experience). Whenever you enjoy it and whatever you call it, when it comes to luxury on a budget, teatime is right up there with foot massages for pleasure and value for money.

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Being Australian, Kin and I have always enjoyed our morning and afternoon teas, but we only started making an event of it during our first Japanese winter. Maybe being indoors so much caused us to try and make it a richer experience or maybe the frozen landscape so far from home caused us to invoke the spirits of our ancestors with their tin teapots, fruitcake, scones and blessed, blessed heat. Whatever our reason for starting, we kept it going all through that winter and now, two years later, we still haven’t stopped. No matter how busy or wretched the day, we always come together in the afternoon to enjoy a little oasis of peace and pleasant sensations.

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Remember that word, please! PEACE is the point to your afternoon tea. This is an everyday event, so it’s not supposed to cause you any stress or problems. With peace in mind, here are a couple of my simplest, most reliable recipes for teatime treats:

(All measures are Australian and metric. I’ll include a conversion chart on the site soon, but for now, look them up here.)

Banana Bread

The simplest thing to make in the entire universe. I’m not even kidding; I have left entire ingredients out of this recipe before, and it still keeps coming up edible.

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  • 3 tbsp olive oil (or other vegetable oil)                                          – 2 cups self raising flour
  • 2/3 cup sugar                                                                                                          – 3 eggs
  • ¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)                                         – ½ tsp salt
  • 4 large or 5-6 small mashed bananas

Preheat oven to 180 C. Grease loaf tin and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, beat sugar, oil and eggs together until light and fluffy. Beat in bananas (if you’re using an electric mixer, you don’t even have to mash them, just dump them in one at a time and let the mixer squoosh them). Sift dry ingredients into the bowl and mix well. It should still be pretty liquid at this stage.

Pour mixture into tin and place in oven. Bake for about an hour; shorter if you like things heavy and moist, longer if you like them fluffy and light. Simple! Slice and eat hot, cold, toasted with honey or however you prefer.

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Butter cake with passionfruit icing

Up until Japan, I baked my cakes in regular, round cake tin. Nagahama, however, had never heard of such a thing, so I wound up instead having to buy two tiny loaf tins and bake two tiny cakes …. which has turned out to be the best thing ever. I now get one cake to eat and another to freeze for the next time I fancy cake and don’t feel like baking (and sometimes when a woman needs cake, she needs it right away!) Other advantages are that small cakes get eaten quickly, even if you don’t have any visitors for a few days and they also make portion control much easier. Kin could happily eat an entire meal of cake, so he likes the small ones; for some reason, it’s much easier to cut yourself a small slice of a small cake than it is to cut a small slice from a large cake.

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Butter cake (Margaret Fulton):  

  • 125g butter (half a block)                                                                 – 2 cups self raising flour
  • ¾ cup caster sugar                                                                              – 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla                                                                                             – ¾ cup milk
  • Pinch salt

Preheat oven to 180 C. Grease your cake tin/s and set aside.

Cream butter with vanilla and sugar until it looks white and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time until thoroughly combined. Sift flour and salt together three times and fold into mixture alternately with milk, using a spatula or wooden spoon.

(I regularly skip this careful sifting and the cake still turns out pretty good, so if you’re in a hurry, just stir it up and go)

Dollop mixture into tin/s and place in oven. Bake for 30 minutes (twenty-five, if using two pans).

Icing:                    

  • 1 cup icing sugar                                                                                          – 1 tbsp melted butter
  • 2-3 tbsp passionfruit pulp

Makes enough for one of the little loaf-cakes, so if you’ve made a big cake, double up.

Using a spatula or a bread and butter knife, mix the lot together in a bowl, then spread it on top of the cooled cake. Too simple! I also often replace the passionfruit with whatever citrus is handy; use a few tbsp of the juice and grate up a few teaspoonsful of zest to mix through as well.

Sultana scones

Slightly more tricky here: If you want these guys at their best, you actually have to cook them at teatime. Scones are a teatime staple for a reason, though; they’re cheap, quick, pretty easy and bloody awesome. I like plain scones with jam and cream, but Nagahama sometimes had trouble providing these, so sultana ones with butter were a good mainstay.

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  • 60g chilled, chopped butter                                                                 – 2 cups self-raising flour
  • ½ cup sultanas                                                                                        – ½ cup milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 200 C. Grease a baking tray or dust it with plain flour and set aside.

Sift flour into a bowl and then rub in the butter with your fingers until it looks like fine breadcrumbs. Give the bowl a thump on your benchtop every now and then, to bring the big lumps to the surface. Stir in the sultanas. Make a well in the centre of your mixture and very slowly pour in the milk, stirring quickly with a butter knife until you have a dough. You may not need all of it, so watch out; if your mixture gets too sticky, you’ll have to dust it with a bit more flour.

This next step is where all recipe book authors turn out to be filthy liars. They will now tell you to turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it until smooth. Do NOT do this, unless you enjoy eating grey, tasteless lumps. Instead, gather the dough gently into a ball, turn it out onto the lightly floured surface and then carefully fold and press it a couple of times until it looks like it’s fairly well combined. You may only need to do this two or three times and remember to be gentle!

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Roll the dough out until it’s about two cm thick. Use a biscuit cutter or the top of a small water glass to cut scones from the dough (probably 16-17 of them). Place on the tray about 1cm apart and brush them with a little milk. Bake them for about ten minutes or until they sound hollow when you tap them on the bottom. Serve hot, with butter!

Even at 1/3 cup, these scones aren’t super sweet; I’ll add more or less sugar depending on how we feel. If they turn out to not be sweet enough for you, these scones are lovely with some honey or stewed blueberries.

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Morning and afternoon tea are small, light meals, with the main focus being your chosen drink, rather than food. On working days, our afternoon tea is as simple as coffee for Kin and a pot of tea for me, with some little treat like a slice of cake or some good fruit or mochi. On non-working days we become a little more elaborate and along with our sweets, we also enjoy things like olives, devilled eggs, little sandwiches and other small, savoury items. The point isn’t the food, it’s the event; a period of stillness, pleasant sensations and happiness in solitude or in good company. Stuffing yourself with half a cake is no luxury at all; but slice of it with afternoon tea is an experience to savour.

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Tea’s up!

Gem

XX

Transition

It’s been a long hard, couple of months since I received that greeting from the ol’ home town. Unfortunately for us, that was only a harbinger of what would next be splashed in our direction. So where have we been, you ask?

Actually, most of you stopped asking about two months ago, but for those of you who still are (a surprising number) we have been suffering a low-level, first-world agony that a lot of people probably don’t relate to, but for us has been terrible. We’ve been homeless!

Not desperate, on-the-streets, sleeping-in-the-car homeless; first world, supportive environment, surfing couches homeless, and most of the past few months have been spent with my long-suffering parents in their tiny, five room miner’s cottage in the country. Neither of them complained, of course, but to suddenly have an adult child, her husband and both of the pair’s possessions stuffed into a space set up for two people must have been a strain. Especially since we couldn’t tell them when the situation was going to end. Luckily, in the country there’s enough room outdoors for even freeloaders to have some space.

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But it wasn’t much fun, either. Home is very important to Kin and I. It’s where we socialise, rest and do a lot of our work. Normally, wherever we go, we manage to haul a bit of home along with us, whether we’re in a campsite, hotel room or a shared bed in a dormitory. While our friends immediately rush out to explore, we first spend an hour or two arranging and provisioning our base. When we left Japan, though, we packed home up and sent it away, cheerfully believing that we would unpack it at the other end in a week or two.

It’s been four months.

Strictly speaking, we moved back in a month ago, but that was the beginning of a three-week period that was just too depressing to blog about. If we weren’t at work, we were scouring dirt, mould and grease off every surface, in a suffocating miasma of hot water, sugar soap and cockroach droppings (a nightmare aromatherapy that is going to take a lot of time to recover from). Our best efforts, however, couldn’t exorcise the smell from the carpet or some of the wall stains, so we’ve been camping on a sheet of plastic on the grubby boards in our bedroom, waiting for the landlord’s magical army of carpeters, builders, painters and other wizards to perform their glorious work. Thus, our possessions have remained in their boxes, awaiting rediscovery.

Kasasan in the dining room

Now, much mending has been done, a new, terrifyingly pale carpet has been laid, and while, there is still a lot of carpentry and painting to be done, we have moved in some furniture and tentatively unpacked a couple of boxes.  Kin has (mostly) set up his computers, I have (mostly) sorted out my kitchen, we have both (mostly) shelved our books and we’re feeling much more at peace.

And, while unsettled, things haven’t actually been bad. It was lovely seeing so much of my parents (and, briefly, my sister!) and we’ve still been working on things that make us happy. Kin, using a desk he made from two upturned cabinets and a wardrobe door, has finished his Maned Wolf motion study.

Maned Wolf

And I, once the worst of the house was scrubbed away, flung myself into the garden and have been happily weeding, planting and consuming copious amounts of dirt and red wine from a teacup. Our first greens are already sandwich-sized!

Little red rainbow chard

Not terribly impressive until you see what I was working from.

See? I’ve been busy!

We’re busy and tired, and the house is still stuffed with builder’s rubble, ripped garbage bags and battered cardboard boxes. But we’ve managed to recapture just one or two little spaces that make the place our home, and the energy and peace that gives us both has to be felt to be believed.

To home and happy spaces!

Gem

XX

Welcome Home!

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And we are back!

The last month’s radio silence has covered a frantic period of packing, posting and rushing around, but we’re finally here (albeit homeless) enjoying a sunny Australian winter. At the moment we’re staying with my family in the country, which is nice when it comes to birds and fireplaces, but not so easy for Kin to get to university. So, last week, on a bright sunny day when Kin had classes, we ventured to Newcastle to visit friends, have a proper coffee and take care of a few things like library visits and collecting a few possessions.

It was a lovely day. The breeze was light and scented with eucalypt and Hamilton was sunny and wintry warm. Mid-morning, Kin trekked off to class and I sat in the sun in a friend’s backyard, with a purring cat on my lap and an occasional avocado rocketing down onto the shed from a nearby tree. After lunch, I ran our errands, then headed out to the university to meet Kin. On this carless day, that meant catching a bus. Luckily, the 226 runs straight to the uni, so I flagged one down, hopped aboard and looked around for a seat.

I had a lot of bags, so I decided for a change to sit toward the front, in one of the four person bays. The lopsided gentleman facing toward the back of the bus appeared to be a little too drunk for that time of the afternoon (but who’s judging?) and I didn’t feel like having someone fall on me every time we took a sharp turn, so instead I sat in the opposite seat, next to a pretty lady in a hijab and her two curly-headed baby boys, one toddling, the other perched on his mother’s foot, using her to support wobbly knees that weren’t really ready for standing. I smiled, she smiled, I settled my bags, took out my knitting and felt that it was truly a beautiful world. Knit two, purl two, keep on to the end… and then a sudden gush of warm fluid drenched me from the knees down and splashed the pretty lady (the older child was in the aisle and the younger had
swung to the side, so both were thus far dry).

It took a second to work out what had happened… We looked down at our dripping legs, looked across at the now suspiciously owl-eyed and wet-chinned man sitting opposite, looked at each other… had a simultaneous realisation and both frantically swooped to retrieve bags, bundles and babies from the spreading pool of vomit, not caring which belonged to whom. And then we were trapped, our burdens safely off the ground with only minimal drippage, but so awkwardly gathered and gripped that we were completely unable to relax our clutch on any one item in case another landed in the soup.

Then, while the two of us watched in horror, completely unable to move, the vile, intoxicated beast leaned forward, right over my legs… and vomited again! And again! With each gush, as my stockings soaked, my shoes filled up and the end of my red skirt turned maroon, the pretty lady’s eyes filled with equal parts sympathy and nausea and I began praying to any gods of public transport that she wouldn’t start throwing up as well. I was having enough trouble containing my own stomach. For several minutes, this awful minion of beery darkness threw up on me, my shoes and my ball of wool, then, having wreaked sufficient havoc for one day, blinked a few more times, stood, and as the bus stopped (sending a frothy wave rushing past again and seriously testing my control over my turbulent stomach) he staggered to the door and was gone.

The elderly gentlemen who boarded the bus en route to the RSL were very helpful. The hijab lady and I each passed them a child, then began rearranging our other burdens sorting out what belonged to whom. Both she and they got away from me as quickly as possible, though, and I couldn’t blame them. I smelled awful. My shoes were full of horror. My skirt and stockings dripped. A nightmare-ridden, beery tsunami had washed away my beautiful day and all I wanted to do was cry. And shower. And throw up. Probably while crying some more. While I threw up. In the shower.

Since I could do none of these things, I just sat in silent misery until the bus reached the university, then stood up to disembark…. And it was horrible. My shoes squelched. Trying to hold my bags as far from me as possible, I splashed off the bus, and dripped my way over the crossing then saw Kin, who, expecting the warm, cheerful, bakery-scented wife he’d left in Hamilton, was surprised to open his arms and have a miserable, vomit-sodden wreck fly into them, wailing bitterly about the awful man on the bus.

Kin is a good husband. He just hugged me and didn’t even say “Yuck”.

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I’m laughing (a bit) now that I’m back in the country and my stockings, shoes and wool are soaking in separate buckets by the clothesline. But the experience was surprisingly distressing. I’m no stranger to wearing the odd bodily fluid or two in the line of duty (hospital work is good for that) but to be repeatedly assaulted with the noxious expulsions of a total stranger, in what I had expected to be a fairly hygienic setting, actually resulted in a bit of mild trauma, only slightly dissipated by repeated doses of white vinegar and eucalyptus oil. I don’t mean that my spirit has been blighted and my life is now a ruin. But I feel as though I’ve been doused with a hefty dose of reality, as well as second-hand Toohey’s.

For months now, Kin and I have looked forward to coming home and we’ve been so focused on the wonderful things about Newcastle (our parks, our beaches, the wonderful food and interesting shops) that we’ve been ignoring the fact of our beloved city’s dark side. In particular, we’ve been forgetting that Newcastle definitely has a drinking problem, with all of the social nasties that implies. I’ll admit that actually being vomited on is a new one for me, but any health and hospitality workers, or other denizens of late-night Newcastle have at some point experienced side effects of the city’s struggles with alcohol.

Experiencing them again so soon, and so forcefully, has rubbed a certain amount of bloom off our triumphant return.

There’s good and there’s bad everywhere in the world I suppose, and it’s not as though vomiting drunks are unknown on Japanese public transport either. But I’m already feeling less open and more cautious about moving around my city, even before I’ve officially made it back there. On the other hand, my generally solitary nature is now fired with community-building ambitions; I don’t want anyone to be vomited on again, and the best way to prevent it is to make our neighbourhoods as safe and friendly as possible. Even if that does mean interacting with people more often than my semisocial character would normally choose!

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So, all of you community-minded Australians, I raise my glass to you (cup of tea, actually) and swear to join your ranks in the coming months. I will be active, I will be supportive, I will work until our community is green, helpful and free of antisocial behaviours. And, until that day, I will always wear gumboots on the bus!

In the meantime, soak it all away….

 

Gem

XX

June Was….

Apologies for two gallery posts in a row, but it’s that time! We’ve bid farewell to June and are gearing up for a frankly horrible July… so we’re lucky we have such wonderful things to remember!

June was lovely meals, trips to Kyoto and wanders at wonderful Fushimi Inari; this time with Gem’s older sister and family who came to visit early in the month (our last visitors in Japan!) Nagahama has resumed regular warm-weather routines and we received more visits from our friends, the rat snakes. Kin’s school also had a much more exciting visit from sumo champion Hakuhō Shō and several members of his stable. And, of course, June was Gem’s graduation ceremony to a slightly higher grade of tea ceremony practice.

June was warm, family-filled and very, very busy… but was still nothing compared to the madness that will be July. Wish us luck, everyone!

(Gem will add a more complete gallery to our Facebook and Flickr pages later in the week!)

Gem and Kin