Product of the Month: Vinomofo

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When we first moved to Australia, we were shocked by the prices. Coming from NYC, where you can pay $3,000 / month for a shoebox studio, you’d think that moving elsewhere would be like getting a big bonus every year. Not true.  Sydney has a reputation for its prices: skyhigh rents, inflated public transport, exhorbitant food and drink and even a bleed-me-dry coffee culture. The silver lining is that most of the time you do get what you pay for. Sydney’s real estate market offers beautiful, spacious and varied options. The city itself is clean, green and naturally stunning and many neighbourhoods have their own park(s) or, better still, beaches. The fresh produce is phenomenal, the bar for basic food and drink is extremely high and the coffee is famously delicious. In fact, there are even a few things that are cheaper in Sydney.

australia-dollars

I digress from my complaint: one thing that you pay way more for in Australia is alcohol. A six pack of beer will cost $15-$20 in Australia, vs. $10 in the US. An average bottle of wine will set you back $20. When I saw Yellowtail, the face of mass-produced Australian critter wine selling for $12.99 at my local bottle-o (vs. a paltry $6.99 in the US!), I knew the Aussie rip-off was real. Australians, of course, love their alcohol so it’s fascinating that beer, wine and spirits are taxed so heavily, representing as they do, the “sin goods”.

Australia's Hunter Valley in the spring.
Australia’s Hunter Valley in the spring.

What’s more ironic is that Australia is one of the world’s biggest wine producers, ranking 6th after France, Italy, Spain, the US and Argentina.  From South Australia’s Barossa, Coonawarra and Mclaren Vale to New South Wales’ Hunter Valley and Mudgee and finally to Victoria’s Yarra Valley and Western Australia’s Margaret River — Australia has some of world’s most revered wine regions and Australians have the wine smarts (palettes?) to boot.  So what about these prices?

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 10.57.09 pmMy favourite product this month is Vinomofo: an Melbourne-based startup that lets you indulge your wine obsession without breaking the bank. Vinomofo assembles epic deals on award-winning wines, sells them online with a generous serving of quirk, and ships them directly to your doorstep. Each wine carried by Vinomofo is approved by their rigorous tasting panel and the company claims that less than 2% of wines submitted to them are acccepted.  Not happy with what you got? You have 365 days to return it — “the ‘fo” will even pick up it up and cover the cost of return shipping. No annoying emails, no subscription needed, nothing but sweet, delicious wine.

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Everything on Vinomofo is sold by the case; you can choose from a mixed case or go with a single label.  You can also choose from an array of “black market” deals — all you’ll know is the grape, the region and the rating out of 100 (if worth revealing). You might get a witty blurb on why that particular case is awesome and, if it’s a mixed case, you might get a few tasting notes on each of the wines. I bought a black market mixed case recently and have been bowled over by the quality, I’m yet to find a bottle I don’t love and the whole thing cost me no more than $120. You heard me, that’s $10 per bottle.

JonStewartMindblown

My introduction to Vinomofo came from a colleague and fellow wine-lover. Four or five of us have succumbed to ordering a case every so often and splitting the spoils. We’ve poo-poohed the wines on offer at company happy hour and have resorted to bringing our own mofo’s to Friday drinks (BYOM trend? You heard it here first). Needless to say, I have a lot of wine on my desk and even more piling up at home.

Doesn't hold a candle to the 'fo
Doesn’t hold a candle to the ‘fo

Of course, after discovering Vinomofo, I tried to think of the US equivalent and had a hard time. The best I could come up with was Lot18, a New York based company with a hard to pronounce name (“lotta tea”?) and, what looks like more of a traditional ecommerce, “always on” sales model. Aside from the dryness of the website (no pun intended), the thing that’s really offputting about Lot18 is the prices: pretty much every wine featured on the landing page was priced at over $60. If I wanted to pay that much, I wouldn’t order it online. I wouldn’t pay their $12.99 for shipping with no returns (forget about a 365 day guarantee!). And I wouldn’t buy just two bottles.

I’ve been spoiled. For good. And it’s great.

Six foods that are all the rage in Sydney

1. Halloumi. 

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Picture from foodytwoshoes.com

This salty, springy cheese hails from Cyprus and has been popular in the area encompassing Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan since the Byzantine era.  Wikipedia notes “Halloumi has recently become very popular in the United Kingdom.” Yup, an article in the BBC this past September attempts to address how halloumi took over the UK, elevating itself from a niche grocery store product to a staple at summer BBQs.

Add Sydney to the list.  Wherever you go, you’ll delight at spotting this salty, squeaky cheese on Sydney menus — whether in place of meat in burgers and sandwiches, as an ingredient in fresh salads (especially with watermelon) or on its own, as a side, grilled and dripping with flavour. My favourite halloumi in the city is in the form of Bondi Massive’s delectable pesto and halloumi sammy.

2. Muesli

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Picture from thekitchn.com

I’ve written about muesli a couple of times but it bears noting as a staple in Sydney.  Whether you’re in line for your morning cuppa or you’re browsing your local supermarket, muesli jumps out at you from every corner.  As in England, muesli is the king of breakfast here, beating back the efforts of that sugary sweet poster child for American healthy eating, otherwise known as granola.  Just so we’re on the same page, here’s the difference:

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Picture from Livestrong.com
  • Muesli and granola were both developed in the late 1800s in different parts of the world.  Muesli was developed by Swiss-German physician and nutritionist Max Bircher-Benner as a natural, raw food to help his patients during convalescence.  Granola was developed by Dr. James Caleb Jackson at the Jackson Sanitarium in New York.
  • Muesli is unbaked and doesn’t contain sweetener or oil.  Granola on the other hand usually contains one or more of maple syrup, brown sugar or honey as well as vegetable oil or butter.
  • Granola is typically harder than muesli.  The sweeteners in granola cause the oats, seeds and other goodies to clump together and, harden into sugary clusters.  While this gives granola that satisfying crunch and pretty glaze, it also gives it that tendency to get stuck in our teeth.
  • In other words, compared cup for cup as an average of all brands, muesli has 289 calories whereas granola has a whopping 500+ calories. A few interesting reports from Livestrong and Shape.

If that isn’t enough reason to switch, check out this delicious bircher muesli recipe by My New Roots.

3. Chia Seeds

I first came across chia seeds a few blocks from my old New York apartment in the West Village.  There is a deliciously quaint store on Carmine Street called Victory Garden that specializes in locally sourced goats milk, mastic and chia seed products.  They’re better known for their goat’s milk soft serve ice cream (check out their foursquare photo feed) but Victory Garden makes a to-die-for chia seed parfait that I’ve indulged in after many a morning workout, despite lingering doubts about where it falls on the healthy breakfast vs. dessert pudding spectrum.  The parfait is made with cashew milk and sweetened with a hint of agave.

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Victory Garden’s delicious chia seed parfait.  Pic by seriouseats.com

Anyway, I was intrigued to learn that chia seeds have had quite the impact on the Sydney food scene, with a conspicuous presence in breakfast foods, desserts and the ubiquitous grocery aisle.  I’m still figuring out how to reconstruct that delicious parfait, but in the meantime, I’ve incorporated this uber super food into my weekend breakfast drinks.

4. Passionfruit

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Passiflora Edulis: the other worldly flower of the passionfruit

Sydney, or Australia really, has an abundance of passionfruit.  You can buy three fresh passionfruit for $2 at Harris Farms (Sydney’s answer to Whole Foods) and any crunchy grocery store will have its own version of homemade yoghurt with fresh passionfruit. You’ll also encounter passionfruit in Sydney desserts (especially pavlova) and cocktails.

Coming from the US, where passionfruit sits squarely in the exotic category alongside mangoes (also somewhat more common here) it’s been a real treat to indulge in them here.

5. Laksa

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Get the recipe at taste.com.au

The first time I had laksa in New York, I was at Double Crown, sampling, what can only be described with political incorrectness, as their colonial British menu. It was tangy, spicy, smooth and delicious.  I loved it.  Funny then how you can find laksa on every street corner in Sydney’s CBD.  It’s so mainstream that the popular Aussie salad bar chain “Sumo Salad” offers it on their health-conscious menu.  Laksa is popular in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia and comes in a variety of preparations.  The kind I’ve sampled in Sydney is a rich coconut-based soup with thick noodles, prawns and a dollop of sambal.  It’s probably more popular with chicken.

While Laksa is an example of a popular Asian dish here in Sydney that isn’t (or doesn’t seem to have made it) big in the States, I could replace this point with an entire category of Asian food.  Central Sydney is an Asian food lover’s paradise with everything from fresh dumplings, “yum cha” (dim sum) and hand pulled noodles to elaborate duck and seafood preparations.  Thai, Malay, and Singaporean dishes, in particular, have more of a representation here than in New York.

6. Spices

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Dukkah-crusted salmon, recipe at taste.com.au

A bit broad and not technically “a food”, but I’m not sure how to put this other than to say Sydneysiders are the kings of spice.  Harissa, DukkahChermoula and Sambal are all fairly mainstream here and, again, feature prominently on both restaurant menus as well as in supermarket aisles.  Dukkah crusted salmon, in particular, is a popular dish that springs to mind.  I’m not complaining.  Although our small fridge coupled with my husband’s love for collecting condiments may soon lead to some challenges…

The Great Barrier Reef

Sea cucumber

Last weekend, we took a spontaneous trip up to Cairns to see the Great Barrier Reef, the “GBR”.  My dear friend Joyce (our first visitor from America!) had spent the preceding week with us as part of her 3 month world tour / planned job hiatus.  We’d had a fantastic time showing her around — the beaches, the (blue) mountains, the zoo, the restaurants — but she was planning on continuing her Australian adventure with a few days in Cairns (a place both she and my husband had a very hard time pronouncing). The friend she was hoping to explore Cairns with cancelled last minute and it seemed a shame to let her visit the GBR alone. So Thursday evening, we booked flights leaving for Cairns early Saturday morning and returning Sunday night.

Cairns and SydneyCairns is a three hour flight from Sydney.  We set our alarms for 430am (a time I would have considered ungodly early until recently — yeah that’s what Sydney will do to you) and were out the door at 510.  The airport was buzzing and the excitement was starting to course through our veins. We were going to see the Great Barrier Reef!  As we split a ham & cheese croissant at Sydney airport, we laughed at the last time we’d taken such a spontaneous trip — nearly 7 years ago when we were living in London.

Sydney is no London when it comes to accessing glamorous European destinations in a weekend, but the airport sure helps make up for it. We didn’t even have to bring ID!  I’ll repeat that because it’s so awesome: all you need for a domestic flight in Australia is your boarding pass. No more “remove your liquids”, “remove your shoes”. We’d checked in online and breezed through to our gate in 10 minutes. The plane spat us out at Cairns airport at 930am and, by 10am, we were walking around the CBD.

Cairns’ central business district consists of a mix of large and small streets with a ton of restaurants, cafés, bars and hostels.  It oozes that beach town vibe but it isn’t packed, at least not at this time of the year, not like Bondi Beach.  From the CBD, it’s a 10 minute walk to the water where a lot of the larger resort style hotels have set up shop.  Joyce was staying at a hostel and in the spirit of keeping it real, we’d decided to hostel it too. Before you conjure up images of 8 people packed in bunk beds with one bathroom, our hostel, Northern Greenhouse turned out to be awesome and we had our own room and (most importantly!) our own bathroom.

We grabbed some breakfast, a walkabout and a much needed power minute nap, we headed to the pier with Joyce to catch our ride to Green Island. Green Island is a coral cay on the Great Barrier Reef with island rainforests and white sand beaches. We’d picked one of the many half day packages offered from Cairns and set sail at 1230. By 1.15pm we were changing into our gear and getting ready to jump into the water.

Green Island
Green Island
Our first look at Green Island
Our first look at Green Island

Hundreds of fish less than 2 metres from the shore! Some of the highlights were the pointy nose blue gar fish, a humongous sea cucumber that had anchored itself to the sea bed, and a giant school of silver fish that encircled us in a continuous and rapidly moving line whenever we came close. I wish we knew the names of everything we saw. We snorkelled in a few different spots and saw some awesome fish but Green Island was a tad crowded in the end. I was surprised to see so many tourists from China, most with large families. Many of the signs and menus had translations in Chinese.

We got back to Cairns by around 430pm and after a shower and a rest, headed over to Fettas for dinner.  I love all kinds of Mediterranean food and had spotted this little gem on our walk in town. We wouldn’t have committed to going there, however, had it not been for Joyce’s success in getting the lowdown on Cairns from a group of local lads.

Fettas was amazing. It was quite possibly the best Greek food I’ve ever had. All three of us got the banquet which meant we’d get to try a little bit of everything and, most importantly, wouldn’t have to make any decisions (big win). The belly dancer and plate breaking (I counted at least six) only added to the fun.

After dinner, we headed over to Gilligan’s, the place we’d gotten the most reccs for as the not-to-be-missed part of a trip to Cairns. I’m not sure how to describe Gilligan’s.  It’s technically part of a hostel but it’s really a gigantic indoor / outdoor club…

Before you judge it though, let me tell you it’s super fun and completely unpretentious. People were gathered along long communal benches and a cover band was playing a mix of 80s rock and top 40s. We kept telling ourselves we’d leave and call it an early night but we ended spending the next few hours dancing to the perfect 80s mix. Interestingly, the dance floor never got too crazy. Is it possible the 80s were lost on this younger crowd? Eek!

The next morning, we awoke bright and early for our ride to the Outer Reefs. We were going to hit up three sites and see the actual GBR. We packed up and went back to Macaron cafe, the lovely French place we’d eaten at the day before and put away some delicious croissants and quiches before heading to the pier.

There were 50 odd people on board, a mix of snorkelers and divers, and the tour was very structured. A fantastic guide gave us an overview of the types of marine life we’d see. We were also fitted with “stinger suits” — lycra suits that were meant to protect us from sunburn and from blue jellyfish, also known as “blueys”. A friend had warned us that on an earlier trip to the GBR, she’d been stung by a bluey on her FACE. Wtf!

The hour it took us to get out to the reef flew by quickly and before we knew it, it was time to jump in the water. The fish were huge and would come right up to the boat for food. We’d been instructed to look out for Nigel, a giant blue parrotfish who’d been domesticated by the boat’s photographer and was always willing to pose for a good shot.

Swimming with Nigel
Swimming with Nigel

The coral was amazing and endless and took on all kinds of forms. Our guide had told us that coral nomenclature was fairly straightforward — e.g. looks like a boulder? It’s called boulder coral. Looks like a brain? It’s called brain coral. And so on.

We had lunch after jumping in at the second site and tea after the third site. We also went on a 30 minute snorkelling tour with the guide who dove down to retrieve and show us various types of sea cucumber. He also led us to a giant sea turtle!  Swimming with that massive creature was just incredible.

Giant sea turtle
Giant sea turtle

We also finally got to see “Nemo”, which had been hard till now because clown fish typically hide in a stinging anemone that they alone are immune to.

Clown Fish
Finding Nemo

After the tour, Joyce and I wandered off for a last bit of snorkelling. On our way back to the boat, I spotted a nurse shark! We chased him for a while and got a few pics, but he eventually out-swam me and disappeared into the deeps.

By the time our boat pulled back in to Cairns, it was 430pm. We were exhausted and my hair was a giant, salty, dried out mess. We got back onto the pier, found the cab we’d booked and headed back to Cairns airport for our 6pm flight to Sydney.  What an amazing weekend!

Running, maybe

I have a secret.  It’s been creeping up on me the last few weeks but I’ve only just started to take notice.  The random sore spots my feet wake up to, the restlessness I experience on a sunny weekend morning, the frequency with which my spandex has been visiting the washing machine. I think I’m becoming a runner again.

The starting line
The starting line

Last month, we ran City2Surf, the world’s largest run and Sydney’s favourite sporting event (that’s what they tell us). Niraj signed us up in secret. I think he told me on the flight to Paris, which is why our holiday was punctuated by early morning runs along French rivers. I got back from our travels on August 3rd with a week to spare. Between jet lag and short notice, I really didn’t have much time to “train” for those infamous hills. Still, we did just fine. Funnily enough, the race fell on the weekend we were moving into our new apartment. We conveniently fell out of bed in the corporate apt and walked 5 mins to the start line in the CBD and then ran to our new place in Bondi.

The crowds were unbelievable.  85,000 people had shown up to run City2Surf that morning and another 20,000 or so were out and about as supporters and volunteers! It felt amazing to be part of something so big.  A colleague at work had warned me that the first five minutes would see jumpers and hoodies being discarded en masse — these Sydneysiders don their old woolies to stay warm at the start of the race and then cast them aside for the Red Cross to collect. Sure enough, we left behind piles of old clothes and a ton of collection volunteers.

The first couple of kms of these races can be really frustrating if you’re not prepared for some aggressive zigging and zagging. Because we registered late, we were grouped together with the walkers, which made it even slower. It was a good opportunity to see all the costumes though: there were superheros, muppets, ballet dancers and a lot of sponsored teams.

Superheroes at the finish line
Superheroes at the finish line

Niraj and I had committed to sticking together the entire way. As we hit the first of several sets of small hills, my eyes threw exaggeratedly exasperated looks at my husband. He laughed and said we’d hit the big hill — heartbreak hill apparently. He lied.

The uphill climbs kept coming and each time we thought (hoped), it was the last one, it wasn’t. Heartbreak Hill finally came. Wow. The half marathon I ran a few months ago in the New York winter suddenly seemed like a piece of cake. We made it through, panting and pushing. The camaraderie was amazing! Not just amongst the runners but with the supporters. People had actually baked cookies and come out onto the streets to feed us. Little kids stood on the pavements, shrieking “free high fives!”. A group of men, stripped down to their underpants and covered head to toe in blue paint (smurfs) were handing out gatorade; residents had come out onto their front lawns to reward interested runners with blasts of water from their hose pipes. The city’s spirit was incredible. As we came down the last hill, the beach came into view and we knew we were almost done. We picked up the pace for that last kilometer, rushing out along Campbell Parade, buoyed by the anticipation of the finish. We finished in 94 minutes.

Bondi Beach at the finish - 100k people
Bondi Beach at the finish – 100k people
A gorgeous beach finish
A gorgeous beach finish

City2Surf really was a symbolic (and convenient) run for us. Unlike most of the other 65,000 people who finished, we were lucky enough to skip the brutal bus journey home and walk back instead.

City2Surf wasn’t painless for me. My lack of training definitely made itself known later that day and even the next as my sore limbs and creaky joints began complaining. The longest I’d run in the weeks (months really) before was a pitiable half hour. And no, I hadn’t pushed myself up five massive hills. Since moving to Bondi, however, I’ve fallen back in love with running.

I’d become a fair weather outdoor runner in NYC (can you blame me?!) but the Bondi to Coogee trail and the perfect Sydney weather are impossible to turn down.  Oh and it’s a 3 minute jog from our apartment.  I’ve run it every weekend.  The path snakes along the water and climbs up as suddenly as it drops down. The views are some of the most breathtaking I’ve ever seen. The beautiful Eastern beaches, the sparkling Pacific ocean, the dramatic cliffs and the glorious waves that crash against them. The trail is packed every weekend — Sydney power walkers, activity seeking tourists and of course Bondi locals walking their designer dogs. Last Sunday I ran the 12 km loop and rather than complaining, my muscles rejoiced at the challenge. I think I’m officially a runner again 🙂

The Bondi to Coogee trail
The Bondi to Coogee trail

Being Manly

This past Saturday, we took the ferry out from Circular Quay to Manly. Manly is technically “a suburb of Northern Sydney”, but that description just doesn’t do it justice. Manly is a beautiful beach town sitting atop a piece of land that juts out into the sparkling Pacific Ocean. 18 pristine beaches surround the town and the Sydney Harbour National Park as well as several historic aboriginal sites are easy neighbours. Best of all, Manly is a mere 9 miles northeast of Sydney’s CBD or 7 nautical miles by ferry.

Manly Beach (from someone else's lens)
Manly Beach (from someone else’s lens)

The journey is an enjoyable one – full of idyllic ocean views and the occasional sailboat. One view in particular, as a ship staring out at the open seas, just glimpsing two peninsulas reaching out to one another, stands out as spectacular.  (More pics to come.)

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Our hosts in Manly for the afternoon have a breathtaking view of the ocean. As a nod to New York, they’d made an impressive looking watermelon ring – a favorite of theirs from trips to Norma’s on 57th and 6th.

Watermelon ring a la Norma's
Watermelon ring a la Norma’s

We had dinner at Hugo’s on our way back, a modern Italian restaurant on the wharf that had managed to transform itself from beachy casual to uber trendy between the afternoon and the evening. The place was packed and the food delicious. Sydney rock oysters are a staple (and favorite) on seafood menus here and Hugo’s did an amazing job with them. We can’t wait to go back!