Wednesday, 21 February 2007

What Australians Do Well

After complaining in my last post, I thought I'd better compensate by listing a few of the things that I like here. Olive oil, for example. Australians have taken in a big way to planting olive trees as a cash crop since I last lived here. The result is that every supermarket has a wide array of beautiful local olive oils on the shelves at very reasonable prices.The ones infused with lemon zest are particularly delicious and make great vinaigrettes for dressing salads. Local olives are good too, though sometimes expensive.
Wine vinegars are another local specialty, not surprising in a country with so many vineyards. And wine itself of course is readily available in large supermarket-like stores that stock hundreds of Australian labels, everything from cleanskins (harsh but incredibly cheap no-name brands) to the hundred-dollar-plus classics like Penfold's Grange Hermitage, Australia's most prestigious wine.
Cheese-making has become a big cottage industry, with many little dairies vying for a piece of the market. Some, like the prized products from King Island in Tasmania, command high prices, but there are lots of more modest types to try, including very good goat cheese, often packed in oil and herbs in the mediterranean style.

Although the Australian government did not sign the Kyoto agreement, there's considerable interest and concern among individuals in reducing the country's ecological footprint. One example is a major initiative to reduce the number of plastic bags that everyone uses. At all supermarkets and many smaller stores you can buy for $1 a reuseable fabric bag to put your purchases in. Most people have several of these and, as they fold flat, they can be stuffed into a large pocket or kept in the glovebox or trunk of the car. In some areas of Sydney, there's such a stigma now attached to accepting plastic bags that people would rather buy another cloth bag, even if they have dozens of them at home, than be seen with the scorned plastic ones.
Other levels of government are taking the initiative too. Our local council offers compost bins at reasonable rates. If you agree to replace your large council-supplied garbage can with a smaller one, the price of the composter is reduced even further. Worm farms are also on offer and the council runs workshops on how to use them.
Most of the state governments give rebates on the cost of rainwater tanks to homeowners who install them, and subsidize the replacement of old light bulbs with compact fluorescents.
So far, large gas-guzzling cars are much less in evidence than in North America. This is partly because Australia has always imported the majority of its vehicles from Asia and Europe, but it may also have something to do with the fact that roads are narrow by North American standards. Lanes on some of the older highways are so narrow that driving requires constant attention. It's just as well that only hands-free phones are permitted in cars. My niece, who is just learning to drive tells me that if you remove a hand from the wheel during your test, you fail. (Needless to say, she's learning on an automatic, but I have to wonder whether that applies to adjusting your outside mirrors or the sun visor.) Oh yes, and the limit for breathalyser tests is .05, almost half the Canadian limit, so designated drivers are very much in evidence at parties and restaurants.
Fender benders are less common because you can't turn a near corner on a red light unless there's a sign specifically permitting it.

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