Please, won’t you come take a seat on my picnic blanket with me? I have prepared a memorable lunch for us on the beach, where the sun is shining, and the breeze is gentle enough to blow the sweet aromas of our food and visual perfume around. I have poured you a glass of my favorite wine. This will be perfect to accompany my freshly caught snapper served with a traditional Lebanese samkeh sauce and tabbouleh. A little culinary journey to help us mitigate the ravages of closed borders and share with friends in a place I love.
However, before I cook your lunch I must regress. My childhood holidays were spent camping in remote deserted sand dunes, void of much vegetation, with parents that fished from dawn to dusk – one painfully long beersie at a time. When I could, I closed the cupboard door on that time of my life having never learned to fish. I did not close those doors because there were monsters in there, but because I wanted my hourglass to be much busier. So now, my unwillingness to learn how to fish was about to impede my ability to serve you all the items on my pre-prepared menu, and trust me that thought was something I would loathe to tolerate from myself.
With no skills, I thought it best to organise a friend and highly skilled fisherman to accompany me and show me the ropes. Unfortunately, a Lemony Snicket’s and series of unfortunate events proceeded to reign and by the morning of the fish, I knew I was on my own. Strangely enough and like a slap in the face with a wet fish, my best friend, who lives in South Head, was sending me photos of the fish she was catching by 6.30am. Suddenly a waft of complete anxiety and fear came over me. My day was quickly turning to custard. Sht, sht, sh*t. How the hell was I going to pull this off on my own? I sprung out of bed and started racing around like a crazed maniac, getting myself tangled in a spiderweb of Google and YouTube fishing searches, which only proved to be confusing and rather unhelpful. Right, calm your farm, Jules. Be methodical about this, you need to get a fishing rod first. So, I screamed over to Warkworth and burst through the door of Tackle & Outdoor. In a noticeable state of hysteria that was accelerated by an incoming tide, zero knowledge of what I needed to purchase and a sense of urgency, I was greeted by the lovely store owner Anthony. In post haste fashion I panted through my mask that I needed to catch a fish, needed all the junk to do it with, along with a crash course in how to do it. With a beautiful calming bedside manner, Anthony gently guided me around the store and selected me a rod and all the accessories that one such as me would need to catch a fish. A dizzying amount of information ensued. Tying knots, five times over loop and through, bait on hook, finger on line, flip metal thingy on reel over, throw out, catch fish, gut fish and scale fish. Sounds viable right, Jules? Oh my gawd, this is hectic and then what if my line comes back empty? I hatched out a back-up plan.
So, I spun around the corner to New World and raced to the fish counter. Fresh fish or bought fish, I had absolutely no intention of leaving you hungry on that picnic blanket. I purchased a whole fish just in case and had every intention of telling you the truth if I had to use it. I raced home, all the while fretting that this information overload was going to explode in my brain and seep out my ears, making me forget vital points. By the time I got home my fear of failure and the escaping tide had overcome me. My anxiety had now morphed itself into the worst headache I had had in over a decade and then I threw up. This wasn’t going to work for me today. I decided to re-set and go early in the morning. With low tide at 6am, I got up at 3.30am and remade your sauce. My mortar and pestle grinding all those pine nuts and fresh herbs along with the romantic slow stir to reduce the sauce proved most cathartic for me. I was now ready to catch that fish. I retrieved my big pack from the shed and packed her with everything I needed for our picnic.
Actually, it was 31kg of gas cooker, food, ice, wine, bait, fishing and cooking paraphernalia. The destination I had chosen to catch your fish and have our picnic is one of my great loves, but vehicles are not permitted, so I strapped that pack to my back and walked the 4kms from the gate across sand and mud flats to get there. The weight of the pack failed to become an inconvenient consideration. In fact, that weight was one of the most beautiful I have ever carried on my shoulders. A pack full of memories, soul searching and learning. Surrounded by the landscape I adore, I could see my fruit in the distance, it was high in the tree and would take effort to reach her. I advanced forward with gusto to reach that new fruit, as I had every intention of consuming its sweet loveliness. I wanted to burst its newfound lusciousness all over my mind and have its memory run down my chest and deep into my heart from this day forth.
At my location, I unpacked meticulously and calmly, retracing the instructions given by Anthony to set up the rod. With fingers crossed and beating heart, I swung the rod, and then, splat! The bait and sinker landed in front of me on the shore. First fail! I had forgotten to release the reel – LOL. OK Jules, get it together here. Numerous pathetic attempts later and with the line continuously landing near the shoreline, I realised I needed to rethink my casting method. I decided to pretend I was a cowboy with a big stock whip. And then with an almighty heave of the rod, my bait and line flew out into the Kaipara. Eeek, I couldn’t believe. I had finally got it out there. I sat and waited, admiring that majestic body of water that provides for so many, but in all honesty those moments were mainly spent praying not to fail. Next thing, I felt a tug on the line and with little faith in my ability, I presumed it was seaweed. Oh my God, I felt another big tug and started reeling the line in. By this stage I was absolutely consumed with hysterical excitement. I got it to the shore and it was a snapper. You son of a gun. With beginners’ luck aside, I was elated that I had caught you all a fish for our picnic. The next part moved very fast. I drew out my razor-sharp kitchen knife and removed its head. That bit could possibly have gone a lot smoother in hindsight, but nevertheless it was done.
I switched to my little paring knife and removed the gizzards and scales as per instruction and washed it in the seawater. Wow! Honestly, there are just no words in my vocabulary to describe that relief and happiness. Fish on ice, I continued to try my luck for another two hours and would you believe it – not one single bite.
So, now back on the picnic rug, I realise your glass of wine has long been empty while waiting for me to catch my first fish. So please allow me to pour you another while I cook your lunch. Whoosh, my little gas cooker lights up and I softly blow out the match. The fish sizzles away in the pan as the samkeh sauce bubbles alongside, pushing its aromatic scent into the air around us. I serve lunch. Our hands reach back and forth across the food and touch each other’s – like little intersecting crossroads. Tender moments together of love, life, and laughter.
As we finish up, I choose my words sincerely and respectfully, mindful of the months that have passed and the individual toll on our lives that they have taken and may continue to do so. But before you leave, let’s raise our glass to us all, a salute to our impending happiness for the holidays ahead. I use not balding and overly spun words to wish you well this season, for I choose to leave you with the word “best”. Make the best out of the situation you are in this summer, and more importantly be the best person you can be. I wave you goodbye, but then I realise, I have forgotten to give you dessert. Stop! I run to you. Remember that fruit that was high in the tree? I reach out my hand and give it to you. All the best, Jules xx.