About the beginning of November, it started getting steamy. Quite a lot steamy.
This is my first ever Build Up, and despite my resolve to tough it out, keep the fan on the lowest setting and not give in to anyone who proclaimed ‘Just you wait, this is NOTHING yet’ (which is to say, anyone who has lived in the Territory for more than five minutes), last week I crumbled, defeated and weeping, in a fug of sweat and wretchedness.
I finally accepted that the water in our pool (with the exception of a murky flotsam of algae and dead palm fronds) was indistinguishable from the air, and that any perishable foodstuff abandoned to the elements for more than 30 seconds would become a living and potentially dangerous entity. The other day I left an avocado on the kitchen bench for half an hour; when I tried to put it back in the fridge it actually growled at me.
My only solace was to relent, seal all the windows and set the aircon at a decidedly chilly 24 degrees. (For any local about to accuse me of being soft, I come from a city where 24 degrees is what you set your central heating to.)
So in the interest of keeping cool, I reckoned this issue would be a timely opportunity to talk about the Territory’s favourite chilly beverage. After beer, of course…
Issue #2: Iced Coffee
Paul’s Iced Coffee is proudly, fiercely and stubbornly Territorian. It’s as Aussie as meat pies and Chico rolls, but so true to the NT that you’ll struggle to find a 600ml carton of the stuff anywhere else in the country. This may be because there’s nowhere else in the country where people consider a box of coffee-flavoured sugar-milk an appropriate accompaniment to breakfast, but these things are taken seriously here. So much so that if you ever meet someone who admits out loud that they prefer Farmer’s Union, it will be in a muffled whisper behind a hand, while lurking in the shadows of a distant tree in the very furthest reaches of a shopping centre car park a few islands over. If asked by a local which you prefer, make sure you choose correctly or you’ll find yourself hanging upside down from a flagpole by your boardshorts.*
Prepackaged iced coffee isn’t all sugar and syrup though. If you’re looking for something straight out of the fridge that actually tastes like coffee, there’s a hipster upstart that has recently slipped into Darwin’s lively cafe scene …
You won’t find Sailor’s Brew in the check-out fridge at Woolies; in fact it took me two trips to Parap Fine Foods and a sunrise run to Laneway Café just to get hold of a bottle each of Black and Dark Chocolate Mocha. These brews come with a burly, bearded sailor on the label, are sugar and preservative free and an increasingly popular alternative to the regular prepackaged fare.
I shared my samples around the office the other day; one of the two long black aficionados exclaimed ‘OIEEEE! That will put hairs on your chest!’ while the other declared ‘Mmmm. A little sweet and quite mild’. Goodness knows how many shots of espresso she pours over her cornflakes in the morning, but I personally found it cool and smooth, with none of the bitterness I usually associate with black coffee. There’s a popup store over the holidays at Casuarina Square selling the full range if you fancy a taste.
THE FRESH STUFF
Rabbit Hole Shop 2/44 Smith Street Mall
Like its literary namesake, Rabbit Hole has an obscure façade which takes some finding; if you’re strolling up Smith Street Mall you’re likely to miss this place among the confusion of souvenir and jewellery shops, however once you tumble into it, you won’t be disappointed.
I’ve passed it dozens of times on my way to Rendezvous for a lunch-break laksa, but it wasn’t until I agreed to meet my trusty housemate for a spot of Saturday morning shopping that it appeared like the grin of the Cheshire Cat.
Lynda had instructed me to meet her at a juice establishment in the CBD; she’d been to aerobisize/jujitsu/hotboxpilates or whatever healthsome thing it is she does at stupid o’clock on a Saturday, and was in need of some liquid vitamins. (She has asked me to omit the fact that she was also hungover.) Upon arrival I found Lynda sitting at the counter in her Active Wear with a fixed, wide-eyed expression. I asked if she was okay, and without speaking she gesticulated at the menu in her hand with eyebrows in eminent danger of escaping her face. She had just paid $12 for a juice with four ingredients. Said ingredients appeared to include the cup, the ice, the straw, and half a bag of carrots from Coles.
I decided to seek out Rabbit Hole for an iced coffee instead.
As Lynda sipped her Superexpensive Superjuice, I chatted with the friendly lady at the till while the barista brewed a fresh espresso, poured it over crushed ice then added a dash of cream. For a steamy Saturday it was perfectly refreshing and tart. I consumed it while we were shopping, and the icy crunch left in the bottom was greedily scooped out and devoured before discarding the (100% recyclable) paper cup. A proper weekend pick-me-up without a sickly sweet finish.
Lynda pointed out that for the price she paid for her juice, at Rabbit Hole she could have scored a coffee and an open sandwich (of more than four ingredients), with change left over for a cronut.
Border Store (Closed Wet Season)
Kakadu/Arnhem Land border
Whether you’re heading out to experience Indigenous art at Ubirr, pitching a tent at Marl camp ground or waiting till the tide drops before dodging crocs at Cahills Crossing, Border Store is a great place to stop. Heck, it’s the only place to stop. There’s nowhere else for miles to stop. So stop there.
You’ll find Border Store about half an hour after leaving the Arnhem Highway. The unlikely little café emerges from the scrub like an oasis for tourists at the western reaches of Kakadu National Park, while providing a haven for caffeine fiends from Arnhem Land, and it’s everything a local milk bar should be. The staff are cheerful and welcoming to visitors regardless of the vehicle (4WD or tour bus) you arrive in. You’ll find hot food, cold drinks, aircon indoors, shady places to sit outside and a little corner dedicated to souvenir fare including dog-eared books on Indigenous art, faded postcards and delightfully naff stubby coolers.
While Border Store may not ooze with the coffee culture of the South, it’s mere existence is a welcome beacon to any local or traveller. I recently dropped in while visiting friends in Gunbalanya and took the opportunity to sample an iced coffee that was geographically as far from the Darwin CBD as I had been while remaining in the NT.
In truth, my beverage did taste more like a milkshake; the shot of espresso was muted by the highball glass packed with full cream milk, cream and chocolatey streaks of syrup snaking up the interior. However, it was really hot, I was really thirsty, and without even asking for it I was provided with a little ramekin of ice-cream on the side and a long spoon. Even though I struggled towards the end, it was a grand thing to be had on a hot and muggy Saturday out bush.
Try not to sit too close to the bins. I did and was ultimately forced to defend my ramekin with my long spoon against a determined army of four million green ants.
Parap, Nightcliff and Mindil Markets
The wet season is almost upon us, so you won’t find this gem at Mindil Beach; fortunately the hardy folk of Just Coffee set up at Parap and Nightcliff markets all year round. And they do SERIOUS business. Mainly staffed by young ladies of the traveler nature, they are wonderfully attentive, quick and very, very good at making coffee. One of the most popular stalls at the market, this was the first NT iced coffee I ever had.
I swear this is the closest you’ll get to an espresso martini without the vodka. A perfect blend of tart and sweet, a chilly beverage from Just Coffee is the ideal start to a market morning. Coffee first, then food, then juice, and you’re set for the weekend. But be sure to bring cash; ATMs are few and far between at both markets and queues can be lengthy. Even if stalls take cards, you won’t be thanked by the under-caffeinated people behind you while you make the transaction.
If you enjoy raw coffee beans decorating your drink, awesome. If, like me, you find them too bitter to pick off the top and nibble, but get really shitty when they sink to the bottom and fuse together in a big, nuggety blob, remember to ask for them omitted. I forgot to once, and when an errant bean became stuck halfway up the straw, I attempted to dislodge the bean by sucking, with exponential force, the iced coffee around it. When the bean suddenly, inevitably, dislodged, it did so with such a release of pressure that the windows in the Land Cruiser I was riding in darn near imploded, and the offending bean lodged in the back of my throat with the accuracy of a ninja star.
Cool Spot 1 Keith Ln, Fannie Bay
I’ve not had an iced coffee from these guys myself, but had the good fortune recently to witness one. I met an acquaintance there, a real Territorian bloke complete with khaki shirt, faded blue stubbies and sock lines. His iced coffee arrived, a pompadour of whipped cream and chocolate shavings piled atop a retro milkshake glass.
Within moments he was wearing a beard of froth and sprinkles, while chasing his ice-cream around the table top with a dessert spoon. I’ve never seen anyone enjoy a non-alcoholic beverage that much.
The Trader T3/60 Winnellie Rd, Winnellie
This place has got a big rap from a number of people, many of them hi-vis wearing caffeine junkies. My housemate tells me that Pippa the proprietor (also responsible for Four Birds and Milk Bar) is an advocate of clean, healthy food and knows more than a thing or two about fine coffee. Definitely next on my list.
The world of regular coffee, let alone iced, is a minefield indeed. Filter, drip, cold press, organic… There is no way I could cover this in one column. I haven’t even broached the subject of soy, coconut milk or any of the numerous variations out there. All I can say is whether syrupy or tart, milkshake or bottled, Darwin has as much variety as any of the bigger Southern cities you care to name.
*A ham ‘n’ cheese toastie chased with half a litre of Paul’s is actually an excellent antidote to an all-nighter at Throb.