Guest Blog: Joe Alessi - Blog 8

Guest blogger Joe Alessi writes from the road as he plays Albert in the Australian tour of Brief Encounter.

Blog 8 - A Time and a Place for Coffee, Wine Tour, Casual Racism, The Unbearable 'meh' of Sushi and Goodbye Adelaide

We are Kneehigh and i don't get sushi.

There, i've said it. But more on that later..

Last Monday we all pretended we were in the film, Sideways (minus the albeit hilarious but dysfunctional, emotionally stunted, dead behind the eyes, shallow husks that are the two main characters in the film) Michelle Nightingale who plays, 'Laura' in our play kindly arranged for us to visit a few of the wineries up in the Adelaide Hills. We were picked up promptly at 9am by the legendary Sue and her minibus, who by this point had read my previous blog and said to me: "What do you mean, i'm old enough to be your Mother?!" I don't think she was best pleased, she gave me the skunk-eye for a moment, then a big smile, followed by a warm hug; needless to say i breathed a sigh of relief. (Chainsaw) Most of us got in the minibus and a few of us got into Michelle's car and we headed for breakfast at 9Bar CoffeeMichelle recommended the place saying it did great breakfasts and fine coffee. To say they took their coffees seriously is somewhat of an understatement. We all gathered, rather bleary-eyed around a large communal table and were greeted by Lachlan, a thoroughly nice chap, with a warm smile and the obligatory hipster beard, the only thing missing were the cool, retro specs:

"Hi guys, can i start you off with some coffees?"

As an actor, i've done my tour of duty as a waiter. It was when i first left drama school and earnt a heap of money, so much so that when i got my first job in T.I.E. i was genuinely shocked at how little i was paid and actually considered whether or not to continue as an actor and the one thing i learned fast was how to read the table before approaching it: how many people were there? How they were talking: were they laughing? Were they on a date? Had they been drinking? Were they not talking? Were they tourists? How old were they? And gauging all that would determine how i would approach the table and what my opening gambit would be. Not, i hasten to add in a mercenary - looking for a good tip way but out of genuine care for the people i was serving, i enjoyed being a waiter, i enjoyed talking to people and about food too but only if they asked. It's such a shame that back home being a waiter is seen as a servile, menial job whereas in Europe and the USA it's regarded as a vocation.

"Oh, yes please, Lachlan, we'd LOVE some coffee!"

Now if Lachlan had taken a leaf out of my 'How To Be A Great Waiter' book (available in all good, independent bookshops) he would've noticed a table of fourteen people, with eyes that had just got out of bed; he would've just said:

"Hi guys, you all look like you need some caffeine. Ok, hands up who wants cappuccino? Hands up who wants latte? Hands up for espresso? Single or double? Americanos? Hands up who wants straight-up, strong filter coffee?" With or without milk? Soya milk? Extra shots for anyone? Great, i'll be right back!" A little wink at the end is entirely optional but requires supreme confidence to pull off.

What we got was: "Well currently i can recommend the single estate Guatemalan, it's powerfully dry yet opulently sweet; deeply complex. Hints of blackberry, blackcurrant, honey, mint, sage, dark chocolate in aroma and cup. Bright but roundly balanced acidity with a silky, lively mouthfeel. The flavour rings on far into a deep, sweet finish." 

Oh, Lachlan.. Really? I'm all for doing things properly but there's a time and a place, this was certainly the place but not however the time. Just look at us, Lachlan. Look at us!

He then went on to list the various brewing methods that were available. I looked around the table and all i could see were people blinking and not saying anything. Jay and Ben our sound & light technicians admirably rose to the challenge and ordered the single estate Guatemalan and not only that, told him exactly how they would like it ground, brewed and extracted. Props to Ben & Jay. The breakfasts did not disappoint, ticking all the relevant boxes in terms of choice, flavour, quality and quantity, most involved eggs cooked in a myriad of glorious ways and bacon too, oh the bacon! Perfect. Afterwards we got back into the van and headed up into the Adelaide Hills and to our second destination of the day, the German village of Hahndorff.

Annette McLoughlin enjoying a cold lagerWhere do I begin with Hahndorf? It's a small town up in the Adelaide Hills, very rural, in an area that is well known for its farming. It is also notable for having a sizeable German community and is heavily reliant on tourism. The town was settled by Lutheran migrants from Prussia in 1839. We all split up and wandered around, looking in the many and varied touristy shops; one that interested Nettsy and myself most was a shop that sold amongst other things, cuckoo clocks, from huge to tiny, in many different colours and themes, we noted that they all showed different times presumably so they all didn't go off at the same time producing a cacophony of cuckooing. But most interestingly and controversially, they also sold gollywogs, lots of them, from Daddy and Mummy to children, all different sizes and dressed for various occasions, it was a little shocking to say the least, seems like the 21st Century has yet to arrive in Hahndorf. I thought it was time for a drink and after I managed to extricate Nettsy from the Christmas Shop, we found a Bier Keller and sat outside with two ice-cold tankards of German lager and listened to German 'Oompah' music and Austrian yodeling whilst we watched plate after plate of hearty German fodder being delivered to hungry tourists: Bockwurst, Weisswurst, Cheese Kransky, Vienna Sausage, Smoked Pork Kassler Chop, Pork Knuckle, Rhine Potatoes, Sauerkraut, Pretzels and a Selection of German Mustards. Nettsy said I resembled the wolf character in the old Tex Avery cartoons as each dish went by. I wasn't allowed to order anything as we had lunch planned at one of the wineries we were visiting.

We left Hahndorf and headed for the first winery, Bird In Hand.  As we drove there the hills gave way to lush, rolling pasture, green and fertile with picture postcard farms, beef and dairy cattle grazing out in the fields, a true rural idyll. Bucolic in every sense of the word. It quite reminded me of back home if wasn't for the mature palm trees and acres of vineyards dotted around, not to mention the odd kangaroo.Wine, wine wine... "You're in Australia, cobber and don't you forget it!" I was in the car with Michelle and Steph and we were the first to arrive at the winery and it being a Monday had the place virtually to ourselves. A delightful woman, an ex-pat who's name escapes me, welcomed us and asked what we'd like to try, i looked at the wine menu.. and looked.. and looked.. There were so many. The words all started to move like in the film, The Matrix. I looked at our host and asked her to recommend something, i must've tried about four different white wines before settling for a Honeysuckle Riesling. Now i'm no wine expert, so don't have the terminology to hand and besides which i wouldn't want to sound like Lachlan but all i will say is that it was really bloody good, like no other wine i had ever tasted. She poured me a very large, cold glass and i went outside to sit on the terrace, a tiny but welcome breeze danced around, the sun was bright and warm on my face, i closed my eyes, breathed deeply and smelt another country. The view was spectacular. In the distance, down the hill, i saw the minibus approaching, trailing dust behind it, i couldn't help but think of Sue as Tina Turner in 'Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome'. The gang disembarked, went into the bar and went through the same procedure as me, eventually coming out onto the terrace with the broadest of smiles on their faces. Jim Sturgeon had the same wine as me but went on to say that the lady had told him that for some strange reason most middle aged men really like that wine. In a fit of pique i downed my middle aged Honeysuckle Riesling and went and ordered a Chardonnay, which came highly recommended by Nettsy who said she never usually orders Chardonnay but was convinced into trying it, Good Lord, it was good!

Two and a half hours later.

We headed off to the next winery, i got back in the car with Michelle and Nettsy. I don't remember much after that except asking Michelle if she could drive a little less like a rally driver as i was feeling a little green around the gills. We arrived at Nepenthe Winery 

"Hi guys, what would you like to try?"

"Water, please. Tap water. Pint of."

To her credit she didn't flinch or bat an eyelid, with the same smile and warmth she said:

"Of course!"

Cheers!That's good service. After an hour, i tried one of their reds and once again, it tasted like no other red wine i'd ever tasted. What's the deal here? Do they keep the best wines for themselves and export the inferior stuff? Because i've not tasted anything like these wines back home.

I wonder..? If i went to Japan do you think i'll finally taste the nirvanic, utopic sushi that everyone else seems to bang on about but has as yet eluded me? I just don't get it. I've tried and tried back in London but to no avail. My friends tell me, with a smug smile that i just haven't tasted the good stuff yet, but i think i have: from the cheap, supermarket stuff, to mid-range like Yo Sushi to the high end places like Shiori in Mayfair or Dinings in Marylebone. It all seems to taste the same. I bite into it: i can taste rice, soy, ginger, something protein like with a bit of bite (the fish) and finally the thwump of wasabi that hits the front of your head like a cricket bat. Everyone's been telling me that Adelaide has some really fantastic sushi restaurants, so after a bit of research i checked out Matsuri, ordered a selection box, sat down, mixed my soy with the wasabi, chopped up the ginger and got stuck in. Guess what? It tasted just like all the other sushi i've tried. Maybe it's me, maybe when it comes to the subtleties of Japanese cuisine, my palette just isn't educated enough, my taste buds are maybe too vulgar and haven't attained that zen-like status. I'm not giving up though, i shall, like Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey, continue on my quest for great sushi. I sincerely hope it won't, like Odysseus, take me ten years, not that he was looking for sushi, would've been less interesting if he had and less tragic.

Thursday. Nettsy and i decided on a bike ride down along the River Torrens. There's a dedicated bike path all the way down to the ocean. As ever, everywhere else seems to do things better than us Brits, Adelaide Council provide free bike hire, turn up at one of the many council buildings or a library, leave your driving licence or passport and they provide you with a helmet, a lock and a bicycle and away you go, the only proviso being that you have it back by 5pm. What a wonderful day it was too, riding through some lovely parkland, the river on our left, a constant guide, in parts as wide as the Mississippi in other parts like a babbling brook but always there, falling, running, beckoning us to the sea. What we noticed yet again were the birds, so many and varied: herons, cranes, ducks, pelicans, parrots and best of all big white cockatoos! Six of them at one point, just stood there in the grass, big and white as angels with that beautiful, striking yellow head plummage. Extraordinary. An hour and twenty minutes later we arrived at Henley Beach, it was sunny and very windy but invigorating, that familiar, heady, ozone 'smell' - a mix of salt water, sand, shell and fish; breathe deep and it hits the back of your head, invoking a huge, pleasurable, sensory rush. We rode on the road along the beach towards the centre of Henley for some lunch. Some of the houses along the beach were amazing, real follies in the 'Grand Design' style and some were.. well.. not so nice. It goes to show, just because someone has money, doesn't mean they've got style but each to their own, eh? We had lunch in a fantastic place called Swedish Tarts, i won't bother trying to explain what it's like as i think i've written enough (sorry Dave Brown!) but have a look here. Check out the menu and the gallery. And someone in there had tremendous taste in music too!

We finished the play in Adelaide last Saturday and right now we're in Canberra but more on that next week. But just to say that Brief Encounter has been the best selling show they've had at the Playhouse in six years. We shall miss everyone at State Theatre from Rob Brookman the CEO and Geordie Brookman the Artistic Director through to the staff, Shelley and in particular the crew: Ashley, Oleh, Tom, Simón, Peter and Mick (sincerest apologies if i've spelt any of those names wrongly) who were a delight to work with: friendly, warm, good humoured and supremely professional. We are Kneehigh and we salute you.

Until next week

Love Light Peace and Respect

Joe X


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Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter

“The most enchanting work of stagecraft ever inspired by a movie” Ben Brantley, The New York Times

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