Raisin Bread and Hot Chocolate

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Like the United States or Canada, Australia spans a vast territory. When my four children were growing up in the 1970s, our family took lengthy road trips all over North America. Over several years, we visited every single province in Canada – our goal was to reach the Easternmost tip in St. John, Newfoundland and, the next year, the Westernmost tip in Tofino, Vancouver Island (our hardy, beige and brown station wagon traversing log roads stretched over canyons, our luggage doing a balancing act atop the car). “Don’t look at the scenery,” we would call out to my husband, who was driving. “We’ll watch the scenery. Just keep your eye on the road!”

Then, over the next couple of years, we tackled the vast landscape of the United States. We were already familiar with much of the Eastern seaboard, all the way from Montreal, Quebec in Canada to the east coast of Florida, but now our goal was to visit 48 of the 50 states. Only after most of our family had moved to Los Angeles, California did I have the opportunity to visit Alaska and Hawaii (three times, so far) to make 50.

Not until many years later, when I served as Guest Staff Rabbi on a cruise ship, did I get to learn words like “Oceania” (Oceania is a vast, arbitrarily defined expanse of the world where the Pacific Ocean – rather than land borders – connects the nations) and “Australasia”(a region within Oceania that consists of Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, and the neighboring islands of the South Pacific Ocean). Finally, there was Australia, so like North America in its grand assortment of gorgeous landscapes and diversity of people. So like Canada in many ways, with a history linked to Britain. I felt at home in Australia.

On arrival, though, I was taken aback by the graphic signs in the bathrooms at customs; the signs instructed visitors to sit down on the toilet seats with their feet on the floor, and NOT to place their feet on the toilet seats and squat. For some Oceanic or Australasian countries, even those with relatively modern plumbing, toilets are a hole in the floor.

I was surprised, too, by the people just ahead of me who tried to smuggle in food (there are stiff fines for doing so) like raw veal and even a whole, plastic-wrapped, cooked duck in their suitcases. They didn’t see anything wrong with it. “If I pay the fine, can I keep the duck?” one young man (a Chinese student) asked. He was bringing the duck to his relatives. No, he couldn’t, was the answer.

Maggots were already infesting the bottom of the suitcase belonging to the Asian lady who was bringing in veal as a present for her friend who had a restaurant in Sydney. “My friend will cook it for me,” the lady explained with a winning smile. But the customs officials confiscated the suitcase, maggots and all, anyway.

Visitors don’t have to worry about finding food in Australia. It is readily obtainable in all price ranges, fresh and delicious. But I must say that everywhere I went, it was the raisin bread and hot chocolate I first tasted in the rolling Blue Mountains that won my heart.

The Blue Mountains are a two-hour or so bus trip from Sydney. Our plans included a cable car over a spectacular canyon, a trip to a recommended animal park featuring kangaroos, wallabies (smaller than kangaroos), monkeys, sloths, and, of course, koala bears. Then we were to take a small boat trip back to Sydney Harbor.

Amid all this scenic grandeur, it was the charming town of Laurel in the heart of the Blue Mountains that captured my heart. The atmosphere is traditional in a way that evokes the English cottage country in earlier times, almost Victorian in feeling. In that little town was a shop that sold soaps and perfumes and a whole repertoire of romantic items, things that had pretty little flowers all over them. I purchased a sturdy shower cap that looked like a Victorian night cap; it had delicate mauve and pink flowers on it too.

Conveniently situated next to this shop was a small café. It was not yet lunchtime, but we had risen early, and we were hungry. I will never forget my first taste of Australian, perfectly toasted raisin bread. It was sliced like a Jewish mother would slice challah (there were two slices), an inch thick and lathered with butter. Accompanying it was the best hot chocolate I have ever had. Not cocoa. Not packaged hot chocolate from a processed powder. No, this was thick hot chocolate sauce topped off with absolutely delicious, warmed, whole milk from Blue Mountain, grass-fed, Australian cows. Then this gorgeous concoction was well mixed, not in a blender but by hand, to perfection, and, in something approaching ecstasy, I finished it to the last drop. If ever the perfect red heifer the ancient Jews sought for Temple rites is found, it will be in Australia.

I was hooked. I kept ordering raisin bread and butter and hot chocolate all over Australia, and not once was I disappointed. Better yet, we did so much walking that I didn’t gain weight!