A tree change of the heart.
An upsetting feature of fiction is that no matter how much we may like the setting of a story we can never really go there. Even the most ardent Tolkien fan will never be able to stroll through the green, leafy vales of the Shire, nor will any travel agent ever be able to sell any romantic traveller a ticket to Big and Little Todday. Even places that do nominally exist rarely contain the drama we read, and though we may travel through London we won’t find ourselves in Mr Holmes’ consulting rooms or having lunch with Bertie at the Drones. Does the answer then lie in non-fiction? Can any book excite us for the real, and manage to whet our appetite for the known?
The good news is that in Thirty Thousand Bottles of Wine and a Pig Named Helga, Todd Alexander manages to do exactly that. By telling us the story of his move (along with his partner Jeff) from corporate inner-Sydney to small-business Hunter Valley, Todd paints a colourful and charming portrait of two men who jumped straight in and gave it a go.
The book is part memoir, part travelogue, and part cookbook. We follow Todd and Geoff from their initial yearnings for something beyond their urban existence, through a number of extremely engaging fish-out-of-water adventures to an eventual acceptance and a realisation that running a B&B-cum-vineyard-cum-olive orchard is exactly how they wish to live their lives. Early stories about running short of water and fishing dead kangaroos from the dam which could have proved either deathly-dull or putrid were enlivened by Todd’s no-nonsense prose, in which no punches were pulled but the lighter side of the issues were shown.
Through it all shines a wonderful portrait of the Hunter Valley, and Todd writes about a community a world away from the city, where neighbours help each other, people give aid and advice as a normal part of life, and everyone takes an interest in each other’s welfare.
One of the most pleasant aspects of the book is seeing the gradual changes overcome Todd and Jeff as the country seeps in and becomes a part of them. We see them progress from uptight, somewhat prissy fellows to a couple of blokes who don’t hesitate to chase a pig, put up a roof or stare down a red kangaroo.
By the end of this book you will find yourself googling ‘Block Eight Semillon’ (unfortunately difficult to find in SA) to have an appropriate drop to drink. Fortunately, however Todd has included a number of his own recipes at the back as an appendix, so you can taste a bit of Block Eight for yourself.
Should you find yourself liking what you read enough, you can book yourself a weekend at Todd’s place whenever you wish. But watch out for Winston.
Reviewed by D C White
Distributed by: Simon & Schuster Australia
Released: March 2019