Beneath the bright Australian sun, Chloe Callow discovered a new world of flavour experiences that would transform her palate – among them the exquisite hit of pure organic coffee.
When I arrived in Australia for the very first time, I made a conscious decision to do something about my fussy, faddy and fairly disordered eating habits. I was 24 years old, but my palate at that point was undeveloped, almost childlike – a comedic reflection of my name. My taste buds recoiled from anything remotely astringent, or that I might deem texturally distasteful.
But here I stood, in an unknown land, embarking on a year-long period of travel, knowing it was an opportunity to make a fresh start. I decided to explore this sun-smacked continent as much with a tentative tongue as with my eyes and ears.
However, ricocheting from one life-changing experience to the next, I started the year by embracing the cheap eats that Oz had to offer. Ahead of an evening on the schooners, my friend and I would line our stomachs with packet pasta, single-meat pies with ketchup, or cheesy chips and gravy. Lunch meant the ubiquitous chicken and avo sandwiched between Turkish flatbread, dunked into omnipresent bowls of sweet chilli sauce. No challenges thus far.
Then I decided to buy the WWOOF handbook – WWOOF standing for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a scheme whereby volunteers stay for a short period on organic farms in return for work. “Wwoofing”, as it’s known by volunteers, came to represent not merely a cheap meal and a bed for the night, but also a password that opened intriguing doors, taking me to quite different worlds from that of party buses and beaches.
So it was that one day we found ourselves in the heart of the Glass House Mountains in south-east Queensland, standing on our WWOOF host Keith’s doorstep, our silly city clothes over-stuffed into our rucksacks. We did not realise that this short experience would be the first of many in which we swapped eager and, in all probability, rather pitiful labour in return for knowledge, and a renewed fervour for the simple things in life.
A morning spent digging in the grounds of the farm, in the long, purple shadows of the Glass House peaks, would be rewarded by a walk through its small orchard; we’d trail behind Keith as he plucked rudely ripe fruit from trees, tore a bite and handed it along, while reeling off the Willy Wonka-style names of the various fruits along the way.
My tongue tentatively poked around for texture and flavour reference points I simply couldn’t locate. I had zero recognition of these custard apples, chocolate pudding fruits and many others whose names I’ve since forgotten.
When temperatures got blistering we’d retreat into the shade of the veranda, part of the 200-year-old, lovingly converted church in which we were staying, and delight in the luxury of guzzling star fruit and pineapple juice, made from bruised fruit that had pretty much fallen at our feet. We would marvel at the simple joy of eating home-baked bread.
There was no meat in this hippie household, and it wasn’t missed. My first encounter with tahini initiated an obsessive drizzling; it enhanced soft sandwiches with its sesame sweetness. One slightly odd sandwich combination that I latched onto was papaya chutney, smashed avocado, tahini and fresh, crunchy, garden-foraged salad.
I’ll never forget the life-affirming pleasure of briefly living in such a simple, basic way – hard work rewarded with the fruits of that labour. Somehow, flavours that I would have rejected back home seemed enveloped in a shimmering haze of sunlight and sweat. In this atmosphere of balmy languor, peppers lost their bitter bite and mushrooms their fearful texture; other flavours popped with stunningly delicious vibrancy.
Neither coffee nor tea had ever previously appealed to me but, one day, at the end of an afternoon spent transferring small coffee plants from pots to a mini rainforest on the edge of the property, Keith produced a carefully wrapped bag of coffee beans.
As dusk quickly settled around us, he proceeded to boil water, grind the beans and then brew the powder in a cafetière. Enchanted by the sense of ritual, and intoxicated by the intense aroma, we were brought to a spellbound silence, clutching earthenware mugs against the creeping chill.
Our apprehension of this heady elixir and its rich flavour was quite an experience. During what can only have been a fortnight’s stay, such moments marked a time for discussion and thought – a pause in the day.
Funny, then, that years later, I’d forgotten that first coffee experience. Instead I attributed my epiphany to a café on Leather Lane. But when I try to philosophise about my love for the brew, it truly comes back to that feeling of appreciative reverence, and that magical time in the Glass House Mountains.
Chloe Callow is author of The Faerietale Foodie.