If chicken curry is one half of home, the other half is Redgate, which is our place in the country. Located in the Margaret River region of the south west of Western Australia, Redgate was where we went for weekends and school breaks. Sometimes we headed overseas, to see family in Singapore or further afield to San Francisco, Berlin, Cape Town. If cities seemed foreign, Redgate was where we had the freedom to explore the bush and the beach.
When we were there, we were coastal creatures – wake up, surf, eat breakfast, swim, eat lunch, nap, go fishing, watch the sunset, eat dinner, read, fall asleep with salt in our hair, midnight snack, sleep with sand in the bed; wake up, surf, eat breakfast, you get the idea. The days had a rhythm to them, which connected us to nature, connected us to something that was bigger than me, or my suburb or even the cities we loved to visit on distant shores.
Redgate was where I learned to respect and cherish the land. Without a grounding there I do not think I would have spent time in the Pilbara, the Kimberley, the Top End or Centre. I feel good there in a way that is different to the feeling in New York and India, different again from my family home in the suburbs. Redgate is a place I keep returning to, where I am pulled by the ocean, the beaches, the forest, the weather, the memories. And it is a place that reminds me of my father like chicken curry does with my mother.
My father’s family lived in Scotland before they migrated to Australia. His father came to Western Australia at the age of nineteen in 1924 and set up shop as a baker, which had been his trade for five years. He worked all over the state from Albany in the south to Karratha in the north with time as a logger, tin miner, and whaler along the way. The last job he had was running a chicken shop with my grandmother in the years he should have been retired. But, he needed to keep the wolf from the door and food was what he knew how to sell. These days, my father still has family in his ancestral village in Scotland, including a cousin who is the last wild salmon fisherman in the United Kingdom. That cousin still rows out each day to catch his daily bread, which he smokes and sends down to Harrods for the luxury set.
My father is a fisherman too, but only a dedicated amateur. When he is down at Redgate, he spends the mornings checking his craypots and getting abalone off the rocks before going fishing in the evening. He is more successful than not and his love of it brings people with him, including my uncle and brother-in-law. It is how he recharges his batteries so he can continue to work up in the city and beyond.
It might be worth pausing here to think about what fishing means in Australia today, where there are myths that circulate about who we are and where our food comes from. One of the stories we tell ourselves is that we are an outdoor people, and compared to those who live in big cities overseas, that rings true. This is despite the fact that most of us live in the suburbs on a thin strip of land by the coast, and do not get into nature as much as we could.
Nevertheless, Australians care about the environment and there is work to do as a community. We have to fight to protect the places that are important to us just like we need to protect the rights of people. But, fishing in Australia is the largest recreational activity and it provides an opportunity for people to share and connect with each other. That means we must acknowledge the Indigenous presence as an ongoing and important part of history, belonging and identity. To see the fish traps, the middens, the stories that tell us about the land and sea is important and this can sit comfortably next to experiences of non-Indigenous people. Where would we be without people who have cared for country for as long as anyone knows? Where would we be without the work of rangers who come from all kinds of backgrounds? And where would we be without our own fishing trips as well?
For many years, my father has kept a record of the crayfish he has caught and submitted it to the West Australian Department of Fisheries. Along with thousands of other amateur fishermen, this goes into protecting the stocks. One year, the department gave out the first commercial license on the stretch of coast where we have our pots. That summer down at the reef we could see the boat pulling in hundreds and hundred of crays every day. That season was our worst on record. People were outraged and not only because it meant the amateurs were not catching their own, but because the professional’s pots were dangerous for surfers. We could not even buy those crays because they were flown overseas in ice filled polystyrene boxes that very same day. People protested and the commercial license was revoked. It took a few years for the crays to come back, but last season was the best we have had for some time yet. It was how K and I fed our Wembley wedding guests.
You might be thinking now, how does one catch crayfish? Crayfish at Redgate are actually Western Rock Lobster, one of six saltwater lobster species found in the waters of Western Australia. There are also freshwater crustaceans called marron that you get in damns on the farms nearby and these have proved a hit with haute cuisine. The crayfish season runs from October 15th to June 30th, but most people take their pots out of the water before Easter. You can also dive for crays, snaring them with a loop or entangling them in the strands of a mop.
You can purchase a second-hand pot quite easily and there are two main kinds. The first are rectangular and the second are shaped like a circular beehive. Both of them have a large opening that the crayfish swims into and must be fitted with escape hatches so the undersize ones can find their way out. The pots have bait cages inside them and we use tuna heads. People used to use roadkill like rabbits and kangaroos, and, for a time, we used cows hooves. But those baits had been made illegal. Dad gets his tuna heads from the same place he always has, a warehouse in Fremantle that is a wonderful place for the fisherman with everything you could want. The pots also have weights in them so they are not washed away when the swell comes up. We have an engine manifold in one, concrete in another. They are fitted with ropes so you can pull them up and a buoy that has your initials on it so rangers can check whether you are licensed and other fishermen know what belongs to whom.
You cannot take crayfish with tarspots or berries (which are eggs) because these are the breeders that will produce the next generation. You have to adhere to size limits and you can ‘only’ take eight per pot per day. You must cut out part of the tail when you catch them so you cannot sell them to restaurants. And you would be best served by going with someone in case the ocean is rough or the pot is stuck. Every captain needs a first mate.
Over the years, my dad’s first mate has become my brother-in-law. Sometimes, my dad and his brother will go fishing together in the evening, come back afterwards and share a dram of whiskey as the sky melts into darkness. And, I have fished with my dad in Mexico, reeled in tuna the length of your body on the Baja Peninsula, eaten tacos al pastor and downed beers all day, laughing at the size of what we caught. But given that he checks the craypots at dawn, it has fallen to my brother-in-law to go with my dad to make sure he is not taken off by a wave, or if he is, we still get the crayfish and the story of his death that same day.
My brother-in-law is pretty handy and he is good at telling fishing stories. I have heard him entertain long tables with tales of the Gove Peninsula eating flying foxes when he worked in pearling, and those from his traditional country in the Western Pilbara getting chased by wild horses on the way home from fishing in rivers, or with cousin brothers on the Dampier Peninsula spending whole days reeling in dhufish and queenies and coral trout. If they catch nothing at Redgate, he still is able to make it entertaining when they come back in time for breakfast.
With him, I have found sugarbag on Croydon Station and hunted marlu (kangaroo) on the plateau outside Roebourne, chowed down on Mrs Lot’s chicken and spread goanna fat on damper at the law ground, gone to fine dining places on the East Coast of Australia, eaten apple pie in Los Angeles and fried sandwiches in Philadelphia, gorged on duck in Singapore and stuffed ourselves on Thanksgiving turkey in rural Virginia. He has brought me dumplings in hospital and I have stocked his freezer with bolognaise when he brought home his newborn son, who happens to be my nephew. More than anything, he has taught me what brotherly love is and the importance of his culture. As part of that, I have begun to learn a little about ngurra, which is to say ‘country’. Ngurra is like terroir but deeper, an attachment to place that matters within your mind, body, soul; it is the land you return to, come from, that you belong with. I think that is the hope of my father and my brother-in-law in seeing the dawn each day when they check for crays – that this ngurra, this place called Redgate, looks after us all, gives us a reason to go on when we are wrecked from life itself. But, that country is also simply beautiful, as beautiful as one can imagine, and the crays are as delicious as can be. That is part of what draws us to it and why we must look after it, always.
Let us assume for a moment that you have caught a crayfish, that your dad and brother-in-law have come home with a good haul. Let us also assume that you get to eat them today rather than freeze them for someone’s wedding a few months away. The day is sunny and warm, the sound of cicadas can be heard while you drink your tea at the table outside, the kids are happy playing, and your veggies are doing ok even though the possums have been in amongst the greens.
First you will want to make a salad – some lettuce and kale from the garden, some basil and mint too; then, because the tomatoes have come on, a handful of those. The farmers’ market was on this morning in Margaret River and you picked up some avocadoes from down the road. Slice them thinly. The dressing does not need to be fancy – some garlic, some maple syrup, some sherry vinegar, some good olive oil. And a sprinkling of seeds tossed in lemon myrtle powder – sesame, pumpkin, slivered almonds.
The crays are a good size today and there are enough for us to have a half each. You pierce the head and cut them down the middle, remove the guts. The meat is translucent, pearly even, and you marvel at the muscle in the tail because that is your meal. It is time to heat the barbeque up, to oil the crays a little, sprinkle a little salt, a little pepper. Once the hot plate is searing, place them flesh down and move them so they do not stick. Cook them for a couple of minutes until you see the shell start to change colour. Then flip them and cook them through, keep the middle a little raw but warmed. A garnish of lemon and chilli fresh from the garden and there you have it. Serve with a chilled chardonnay and talk about the world.
I have eaten crayfish other ways – in curry, in ceviche, in tacos, in pasta, in chowder. But I love the simplicity of the grill, of letting the freshness of the meat come through, of letting the taste of the ocean, of the ngurra, speak in the ingredients alone. It is summer too and the cooking should not take long. This gives you more time to drink wine and relax in the company of family you have not seen for a while. To think about crayfish like this is not to romanticise the country, or summers at Redgate in any particular way. Some days there is nothing in the pot, and, when that happens, you feel defeated by the ocean itself. But it makes you respect what nature has in store for you, makes sure you know that you are a part of something bigger and that counts for a lot. Its not what you catch, but how you live it up.
When I was staying there some years prior, I was part of community organisations caring for the coast, opening up public space for walking tracks and debating the merits of development that was happening at an alarming pace. Redgate is unique in many ways for it is in country Australia but it leans green; is obsessed with surfing; focuses on wellness culture, new age spirituality and healthy living; is wealthier than lots of other parts of the country; and is growing. Of course, one does not have to drive very far inland to see that the sea changers are not the only people here and I myself have friends who’d rather be hunting pigs than fishing. Yet Redgate is a place that keeps me connected to my father and brother-in-law, to nature and the people who live there, to the spirit of a place and a community that are so very far away from the bagel days of New York. They are just as cosmopolitan as any big city however, and, in town, one can find any kind of food you want – there is Japanese omakase, authentic Korean, country Chinese, Contemporary Australian, classic bakeries, a fantastic gourmet pub that screens the footy, and too many other gems to name right here, right now.
My father grew up in the West Australian Wheatbelt in a time when the food choices were limited. In Redgate, which is different place in a different era, there is a cornucopia of food that connects us to everyone in the world. From the ocean to the veggie patch, crayfishing at dawn and watering the lemons at dusk, it is a place that allows us to enjoy ngurra in such a way that our palates meet over lunch and we can reconnect with what matters to us. The only thing we need is a chicken curry in the freezer for when the pots are empty and the surf is so good you come home later than you ever thought possible.