Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Vintage Outing

We’re standing on the steps of Parliament House straining our eyes to catch sight of ‘Florence’ the Fiat. All of a sudden, she rounds the corner and comes barreling down Spring Street. I can see ‘Betty’ with her big hair in front, ‘Harry Hoover’ behind the wheel, and in the back ‘Miss Shirley’ dressed in a brown polka dot dress. As we jump in the back seat, I’m immediately transported back to an era of knee-high boots, vinyl records and polyester. We’re handed a vintage inspired shopping bag along with Betty and Miss Shirley's personal journal and freshly sharpened pencil for making notes. I catch the eye of my friend who is grinning ear to ear. It’s going to be a fun day.

I’ve signed up for Melbourne’s quirkiest new experience, ‘A Vintage Outing’, run in conjunction with Fiona Sweetman, a curly-headed Melbourne gal who recently collected a Melbourne Award for her contribution to the city’s profile, through her unique Hidden Laneway, Art and Design tours. Her business, Hidden Secrets Tours, started life as the tour arm of the successful Deck of Secrets series.

If anyone can give you the lowdown on the best this city has to offer in terms of local retail, art and design, it’s Fiona. She reels off names of local labels, designers, tailors, artists and galleries as if she’s reciting the alphabet – a walking encyclopedia of what makes this city tick. And not only does she relay her vast knowledge to lucky participants on her various tours, she also brings valuable tourism dollars to the doorstep of many homegrown businesses that she showcases along the way, with no kickbacks and often little recognition from the very people who benefit most.

Now the girl that’s become synonymous with her Lanes and Arcades tour, has kicked off two new ventures, the Sommelier's City Walk, and for those with a penchant for all things vintage, the tour we’ve joined today. Run by vintage queens and long time friends, Lyn Gardiner of Empire Vintage and Kinky Gerlinki buyer Danielle Pumo, alias ‘Betty and Miss Shirley’, ‘A Vintage Outing’ takes participants on a nostalgic journey unveiling some of Melbourne’s best-kept ‘vintage’ secrets. Participants explore the city in beautifully restored 1950s Fiats, like Florence, which is being driven today by Sholto Allbrook (alias ‘Harry Hoover’).

The girls are in fine form as we head for the leafy bayside suburb of Albert Park where Lyn’s store has been selling one off vintage furniture, homewares and glamorous frocks for the past 15 years. There are sparkly chandeliers, French original upholstered beds, rustic tables and chairs, chintzy wallpapers and crockery downstairs, while upstairs feels like granny’s attic, packed to the rafters with gorgeous vintage frocks, slinky nightgowns, fur stoles and more. Big girls can lose track of time playing dress ups here where, sentimentally, I purchased my God daughter’s first vintage dress five years ago. Harry Hoover however is leaning on the horn prompting us to move on.

Back in the Fiat we head for Izzy and Popo, a vintage furniture and antique store run by husband and wife team Harry Silman and Bernadette Wyer at South Melbourne. All items are sourced predominantly from Belgium by Harry's mates Daan and Mariette who scour markets, haggle with antique dealers and travel snow covered roads to find the next great thing. Bernadette, a former fashion designer, shows me downstairs to the basement where the latest shipment of stock has arrived. I’m drawn to a large red tin sign, which until recently lived in the shed at her brother’s farm - until I see the $5000 price tag! Upstairs the girls are captivated by a collection of butterflies and Lyn, unable to restrain herself, has put another ‘treasure’ on hold.

On the way to our next hidden secret, we discuss why Melbourne has gone crazy for all things vintage. “The resurgence in vintage fashion has led to a huge interest in vintage furniture, homewares and collectibles,” says Danielle, while Lyn adds; “People love finding ‘one offs’ that noone else has, pieces that have been previously treasured by someone else and that have a story to tell”.

As we pull up at our next stop, the Fiats attract the attention of passers by who stop to take photos. We’ve arrived at Arthur’s Circus, a relatively new shop and gallery specialising in vintage toys and collectables. The store is run by Nicholas Fitzgerald and Natalie Jeffcott, parents of three-year-old Arthur (hence the name). The couple spend their time rummaging around markets, garage sales and on eBay looking for kid’s stuff that takes their fancy. “After we had Arthur, we went looking for interesting items other than mainstream stuff to decorate his room, which is how this all started,” explains Natalie. Their store makes me instantly melancholic for my own childhood, with its wooden toys, colorful one-off cushions, retro signs, matchbox cars, board games and Enid Blighton books. My friend, Melinda Bey and I both buy cute miniature dinner sets for our six-month-old babies. It’s hard to leave, but Madame Brussels is calling our name.

Three levels above bustling Bourke Street, Madame Brussels’ pink parlour is decked out in Astroturf and chintzy garden furniture. Staff in tennis whites serve up Pimms, pots of steaming hot tea and neat picnic lunch packs from Sugardough wrapped in vintage teatowels. Over lunch, Melinda says the thing she likes most about the tour is meeting the storeowners personally, as well as receiving a small gift and discount on purchased items from each place visited. I have to agree.

But as far as revealing the rest of the itinerary, well unfortunately that’s top-secret information and if you must know, you’ll simply have to book. With an air of Lady Penelope from the Thunderbirds, we summon Harry Hoover to take us and our vintage treasures, “home”.

A Vintage Outing run by Hidden Secrets Tours costs $245 per person including vintage inspired shopping bag, tea, homemade treats, and Betty and Miss Shirley's personal journal. Tours run Thursday, Saturday and Sunday (or by private arrangement). To book phone 03 9329 9665 or online at

Monday, September 22, 2008

Bow Down Before the Brow Queen

Tomorrow I'm off to have my brows shaped with brow stylist to the stars, Sharon Lee. I've never really made a fuss with my brows and since having my daughter Ella (five months today!), they've definitely gone to the dogs. I first heard about Sharon Lee when I was commissioned to update the Melbourne Luxe Guide. Sharon does the forehead follicles of Sydney's A-list, and is considered an eyebrow engineer. So after having lunch at Crown's Giuseppe, Arnaldo & Sons tomorrow in aid of research for the Luxe Guide, Ella and I will head over to the South Yarra studio of Sharon Lee to meet the famous brow queen herself. It should be a great day, and hopefully Sharon will work a miracle with my wayward brows.

Have a lovely week.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Grampian's icons and hidden gems


It's a long way between decent lattes on the Great Western HWY from Melbourne to Dunkeld. Yes you can find one at the end of a long drive at the Royal Mail Hotel where chef Dan Hunter has put the Grampians on the foodie radar (more of that later). The drive however between Melbourne and Dunkeld seems a particularly long 253 kilometres without a decent coffee to break the journey. Aware of this two innovative couples that made a tree change from the city to country Ararat pulled down the paper on the windows of a former pub on the town's main drag last week to reveal Nectar Ambrosia - a cafe/restaurant offering modern Australian cuisine with a classic Italian twist. Owners Mike and Shannon Di Lisio and Kate Kirkpatrick were busy serving happy customers when we dropped in on our way back from a three day tour of the Grampians. Gasping for a coffee, two decent lattes rapidly appeared on our table thanks to a young and competent barista who was down from the big smoke to help out with the opening.

Chef Alex Barrie was serving up some good looking food and we opted for the tapas menu, which allows you to mix and match various tapas dishes to create your own Share Platter. I asked the waitress if the chef could present a platter of what he considered his best dishes, and despite initial reluctance to make this request of the kitchen, we were a short time later presented with a large square white plate featuring sea salt and schezuan pepper squid, lamb cutlets with Grampians olive oil and a salsa of cherry tomato and shallots, aussie scallops with lemon grass, ginger, honey and chive dressing and eye fillet carpaccio with grana, Manzanillo olives, basil and balsamic dressing. We also had a couple of spiced Italian meatballs with pomodoro sauce all washed down with a local Grampians savignon blanc from Montara.

I know Nectar Ambrosia is going to do well. The owners have pulled together something that was seriously lacking, not only in the town but along the Great Southern Touring route between Halls Gap and Melbourne. And it's a great spot to pick up some local produce and local wines from the providore including Best's and Great Western wines, Savvy spiced shiraz jelly, Mt Zero Olives, Istra small goods, Bellenen Grampians Organics, Michel's Fine Biscuit Company and more. I particularly liked the warm welcome and Michael and Shannon, who also have two young children, were not fazed in the slightest by our four month old's grizzling (to be fair it had been a rather long drive in the car after getting lost trying to find Mt Zero Olives and Ella had clearly had enough).

We wish the team at Nectar Ambrosia the very best of luck and will be sure to stop for a latte or two when passing by next.

Will post more on our Grampians journey soon.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Inspiration from My Desk

You don't necessarily have to travel to feel inspired. Today I've been inspired by the beautiful Spring day, new growth in the St Kilda Botanical Gardens and the smell of Jasmine in the air. Isn't that just the quintessential smell of Spring? Takes me right back to childhood and days spent swimming and running barefoot on the grass.

This past few weeks I have been inspired by a Melburnite Roy Best, who I'm profiling for Royal Auto and Melbourne Magazine.

Roy is a Melbourne mechanic, turned carpenter, turned tenor who was one of three winners of Operatunity Oz (the ABC series). He has been performing the lead role with Melbourne Opera recently and has just released his first solo CD with ABC Classics.

What's so amazing about Roy's story is how close he came to never actually fulfilling his potential. Roy was bullied as a teenager so turned his back on singing for 20 years until his friends pushed him to go on Operatunity Oz. He had long given up singing and went onto become a motor mechanic, and a carpenter and always had rough hands and no fingernails as those who work with their hands do. Today he’s being hailed as one of the most exciting new talents in Australian opera and is a likeable, down to earth guy as well.

As Martin Busacott from ABC Classics puts it “Not only can Roy fix the car when it breaks down enroute to rehersal but he is so accommodating putting up with seven hour photo shoots in the rain without complaint”. The fact that Roy doesn’t have ‘attitude’ - something opera singers are renowned for (it is where the saying 'prima donna' came from after all) - is possibly because success has come late in life. He’s relishing every moment and can’t quite believe he’s making a living from singing.

For those who missed Operatunity Oz, try and get hold of a copy on DVD. It's a great watch. And for those who are interested, I'll let you know when Roy's story goes to print.

Enjoy Spring!

"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see, and what it means." - Joan Didion

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Mornington Peninsula Sojourn

It was a gorgeous blue-sky day for the launch of at Montalto on the Mornington Peninsula. We were wined, dined and stayed at the most gorgeous B&B, Easton Grey, which felt like staying at an English estate on 40 beautiful acres. Easton Grey is run by the a lovely English lady Jo and her daughter CC.

Ella was on her best behaviour at the launch, plus she was minded by a babysitter, Norma, from Peninsula Sitters on Friday night while we went to dinner at Long Table. It was loads of fun and we enjoyed getting to know Robin and Charlie who are behind the website.

It was great fun exploring the peninsula. We visited Stoniers Winery and had a personalised tasting with the wine maker. After this we had a well earned latte and breakfast at Merricks General Store with new owner Kathleen, another wine maker and a character to boot. After this we had lunch at Lindenderry. At first we were sitting inside the rather formal dining room, but opted instead for the sunny courtyard. It was a stunning day and a couple were getting married amongst the vines. It was a perfect day for it.

I had a very quick squiz around the fantastic Red Hill Markets before we headed back to Easton Grey for an afternoon nap. Tom took care of Ella while I drove back to Red Hill for a run along the new boardwalk which runs from the local school. It was great running in the fresh country air.

That night we had a fireside seat at Vines of Red Hill. We both had the warm salad of early spring white asparagus with a truffled free range egg that the chef James Redfern sourced from the markets that morning. I followed this with a fantastic roasted free range chicken breast with mushroom and leg with brioche, creamy polenta and golden jus. This was a particularly memorable dish. Tom and I then shared the persimmon, ginger and currant pudding with citrus syrup, honey and yoghurt icecream, which again was delicious.

The next day was Father's Day so Ella and I gave Tom a brief sleep in before giving him his presents - a smart shirt from Scarff in St Kilda, two Gordon Ramsay Kitchen Nightmare DVDs and a Top Gear DVD. He deserves it. He's such a great dad to Ella.