The Real Essence

19 June 2021

A few years ago I led a tour group to Oman where one of our most enjoyable experiences was a very ordinary outing. We went to a hyper-market on Highway 23, 180 kilometres from Oman’s capital, Muscat.

The Lulu Hypermarket had an excellent prepared food section where the passengers and I bought our lunch for a picnic at a nearby village.

Middle-eastern men in a supermarket
Lulu Hypermall, Oman 2019

My selection was delicious. But more fascinating was seeing what Omanis like to cook and eat. Apart from the spice shelves, the most surprising find in the hyper mall were the rows of food essences; everything from vanilla to biryani essence. I bought a bottle of biryani essence for my husband, not thinking about the chemical content. Nor did I pay enough attention to the packaging. A few days later I found the small, empty bottle and a portion of my clothes heavily infused with essence of biryani.

Sadly, we have over-industrialised essence. Many of us cook in a hurry. Why waste a perfectly good (and costly) vanilla bean when we can drop vanilla essence into the mixture?

Real essence, I’ve discovered, isn’t about bottling fragrance. It’s about a distillation of memory. It’s why I can instantly recall the chocolate cupcakes from the bakery near my grandmother’s house. It’s my Mum’s home-made Sweet-and-Sour Pork. The cardamon in the Makluba chicken I tasted in Bethlehem. It’s been years since I’ve eaten any of these items, but the memory of them is completely fresh.

So I was delighted on my recent trip to the NSW Southern Highlands when several of the farmer/artisans we met spoke of trying to capture (and bottle) their environments. This creative and passionate endeavour immediately seized my hungry little grey cells (to steal a phrase from Hercule Poirot).

At Glenmore House, Mickey Robertson served a palate-cleansing garden consommé which infused the flavours of her kitchen garden in a single saucepan. It was like imbibing a magical potion. Now I long to make my own signature vegetable tisane.

A woman prepares soup in cups
Mickey Robertson, Glenmore House

At Backyard Beekeeping Bowral Hamish Ta-mé conducted an experiment, capturing ten single-origin honeys in the spring/early summer of late 2020. Apart from a wonderful masterclass on the art of bee-keeping, Hamish, a professional photographer, demonstrates with honey what he’s done with photography; how to capture a landscape.

A man with a jar of honey
Hamish Ta-mé

We sampled each of the honeys tasting the subtleties and noting the viscosity and colour. What a remarkable product the bees make Producing aroma and taste, like artistic pursuits, can be every bit as creative as painting an Archibald prize-winner.

Bees entering a hive
Photo by Hamish Ta-mé
Rows of honey jars
Photo by Hamish Ta-mé

My dream is to witness the process of distilling rose-water in an Omani mountain village. Finding the essence is about discovering and rediscovering our souls and our cherished memories.