Monthly Archives: July 2013

It was all that fat…

Since the inception of the “Fat for Britain” Appeal, a total of over 300,000 Ibs. of fat has been shipped to our kinsfolk in Great Britain, and has proved of inestimable value as is evidenced by the thousands of letters we are continually receiving from grateful recipients’.  REV. H. Hunt to the editor of the Benalla Ensign 5th January 1950.

Three years after World War II ended Australian housewives began scraping the fat extruded from Sunday roasts and lamb chop dinners off baking dishes and grill plates into cans. They deposited these lard filled cans at nominated ‘fat depots’ —usually a suburban home—to be collected, consolidated and shipped off to London for distribution across the British Isles, where the contents were reportedly used by ‘grateful’ Britons to make pastry, mince pies and fry fish. Donors of fat were exhorted not to ‘mix good fat with bad’ but in the absence of any definition of what might constitute one or the other type it was up to individuals to make that discrimination: a process that would have resulted in drippings of variable quality being amassed, and some of it would have turned rancid by the time it arrived into British kitchens.

I often muse as to whether these 300,000 pounds of recycled fat might not have contributed towards Anglo-Australians largely disowning their British food heritage in the decades after the war. They must have felt some revulsion at the knowledge that their ‘kinsfolk’ were eating food prepared with stale, possibly decomposed, grease—even though this has been forced upon them by post-war food shortages in Britain —and therefore thought it prudent to cease to regard them as culinary role models. If this fat did have an affect on white Australians forsaking their ancestral food roots, it would have been trifling, but like the slight eccentricity of a lover that has begun to disproportionately irritate, it was a sign that the relationship was struggling: and an alluring new lover named ‘global ethnic international cuisine’ was beckoning.

Field studies would show that the daily meals of many modern Anglo-Australians still bear vestiges of British influence, but few would own that to camera. When I tell a compatriot that I have a scholarly and practical interest in our Anglo-Celtic culinary legacy they inevitably screw up their face and look at me as if l have confessed some heinous food crime. Australians have become very fond of crowing about ‘our wonderful’ food culture: probe this pride and the probed will unfailing say that it is our ‘multi-cultural’ cuisine that they are so proud of. Our Anglo-Celtic food heritage is rarely mentioned amongst the multitude of cuisines they unfailingly describe as constituting ‘Australian food’, but it is in part our British ancestors that we have to thank for our modern food culture.

The natural climate of the British Isles is not conducive to growing food all year round, and 1000 years ago the species of plant foods that could be cultivated were seasonally curtailed. Britons were forced to spend the cold months of the year eating the limited range of foods that could be stored, and the winter diet of most people would been pretty monotonous. In 1096 English knights and peasants joined the religious wars, the Crusades, being fought in places such as Anatolia and Jerusalem. Along with their tales of heroic holy daring-do the Crusaders brought many new foods such as cinnamon, ginger, mace, dates, raisins, sugar and citrus fruit home with them. These exotic foods were a panacea to taste monotony and were enthusiastically absorbed into British cookery resulting in the creation of dishes such as plum pudding. Many Australians eat this pudding, made with spices, raisins (plums) and candied lemon and orange peel, each year at Christmas. It’s often endured from a begrudging sense of tradition, a reminder of a culinary past we want to forget, but it if was described as a ‘global marriage of British classicism with Middle Eastern flavours’ I wonder it we might not demonstrate more enthusiasm for it.

In 1612 the British began sailing to India to gain direct access to the spices they had developed a particular passion for. By 1858 they had complete control of the Indian spice trade, and of the subcontinent itself, and had developed a ‘fusion cuisine’ of British and Indian cookery that resulted in dishes such as curry (that’s right, it is not an Indian dish), mulligatawny and kedgeree. By the end of the nineteenth century the use of spices —and other former exotics such as dried fruit, sugar and citrus —in British cuisine, and by association the type of food eaten in Australia, had been so well assimilated that these had become commonplace.

While it is in inarguable that the food modern Australians eat is an amalgamation of food styles and flavours from across the globe, this short essay demonstrates that it was from our British ancestors that we inherited the sense of culinary adventurism and the ardent palates that have made us so receptive to, and accepting of new foods. This understanding might serve to help us shake off the culinary amnesia that prevents us from celebrating them for it.

Modern Goldrush

Regular patrons of Melbourne food and beverage dispensaries would have noticed a distinct increase in young people with Irish, English, French, Scandinavian, Spanish, or other exotic accents, serving them of recent time. Many of these fresh faced foreigners have come to escape the economic doldrums of Europe for a time, drawn by glowing international reports of our prosperity. It is a contemporary situation that has a little explored nineteenth century precedence, yet both share the same impetus: natural resources. In 1851 rich seams of gold were discovered in Victoria. When the news of this hit international headlines, people from all around the world set sail for the antipodes to try their luck at gold mining. The great majority of them disembarked in Melbourne to begin their journey to the goldfields in central Victoria, but some divined that more assured profit could be made in this burgeoning colonial metropolis rather than leaving it to providence on the diggings. With so many people passing through Melbourne, and successful miners returning there looking to show off newly acquired wealth, the provision of food and drink to them offered many ‘golden’ opportunities.

The stuff of our current resources boom is of different colour and located much further away—although it is now quicker to fly to Kununurra than it was to walk to the goldfields from Melbourne in the 1850s—but the multiplier effect of this boom contributes to many of us having a good enough disposable income to spend regularly enjoying ourselves in bars and restaurants. It is this modern ‘gold rush’ that has again attracted people to Melbourne—perhaps just to earn a modest living rather than make their fortune—to work in a vibrant hospitality industry begun more than a hundred and fifty years ago by other young (and youngish) people from the other side of the world. So let’s meet some of Melbourne’s hospitality pioneers (and pat yourself on the back for picking up on other contemporary parallels in this story).

By 1853 the ‘Yankee’ Samuel Ross had opened the up-market Criterion Hotel at 38 – 40 Collins Street West, which reportedly served ‘excellent cuisine’ in the Anglo-French style of the nineteenth century London based French celebrity chef, Alexis Soyer. Ross’ nasally twang would not have been a lone one in the first floor dining room of his hotel as he employed American barmen who performed skilful tricks with glasses and bottles when mixing cocktails for patrons, and other of his entrepreneurial countrymen had come out to see what they could make of the gold boom. It was Americans who introduced ice, cable cars (aka trams) and elevators to Melbourne. The ice was cut from the frozen lakes of Massachusetts, packed in sawdust, and sent south on fast clipper ships, conveniently refrigerating companion shipments of crayfish and champagne to satisfy the demand for luxury products in the cashed up colony. The Criterion bar was the repository of the first shipment of Massachusetts ice to arrive in Melbourne. When a sign —ICE-ICE-ICE—was hung out over the portal of the hotel to announce its arrival the bar was besieged with patrons eager to enjoy the novelty of a truly cold beverage.

In 1852, 25-year-old Frenchman Antoine Fauchery arrived in Melbourne en-route for the goldfields. He considered stopping in the town to take up a job as a hotel cook as the wages on offer were lucrative due to a shortage of staff to work in the numerous eating establishments that had opened . In the end it was his lack of English rather than his lack of culinary skill that decided him against this option. He returned to the city two years later from the diggings with sixty hard-won pounds in his pocket. He expended this setting up the Café-Estaminet Français in a small house at 76 Little Bourke Street where he served lunches, cold suppers, wine, brandy and beer. The place, furnished with sofas and a billiard table, quickly became the rendezvous for Swiss, Italians, Canadians, Mauritians and ‘other such nationalities ending in –ian’ in Melbourne. Fauchery did not hold a licence to sell liquor but the police reportedly turned a blind eye to this as his patrons were quite and never unruly: unlike the rowdy revellers that packed the larger hotels.

I think we do fail to recognize how young many of the people were —and it was mainly men— who came to Melbourne during the gold rush years, as the pictures we see of them formally posed in their well-buttoned up clothing and bushy beards make them appear much older to our eyes. A case in point is the portrait of Felix Spiers and Christopher Pond below (source).



Spiers was 23 when he arrived in Melbourne in 1856, where he teamed up with, the somewhat more mature, 29 year old Christopher Pond and opened the Café de Paris at 71-75 Bourke Street. Their English accents were not ‘foreign’ but Pond was from Essex, and Spiers had grown up between London and France so each would have had a different vocal intonation. Because our modern experience of ‘diversity’ has been shaped by living in a city that is home to people of many varied ethnic backgrounds we seem to have limited our understanding of it to just that, and accept the premise that colonial Australia was ‘mono-cultural’ and therefore lacking in diversity: this is far from the truth. Colonial Melbournians did not see themselves as all the ‘same’, they indentified as English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish; Catholic, Protestant, Quaker and Jew; teetotal and drinkers, and might have considered themselves as different to each other as a German would from a Spaniard. The accented voices of men —for women were not allowed—of all these backgrounds, joined by those of the French waiters who recited the menu to customers, would have filled the air of the grand dining room of the Café de Paris with a multi-tenored hum.

‘Important to mercantile men, professional men, men of leisure, men of toil, important to all’’

Thus ran the opening advertisement for the Café de Paris in June 1858. This pitch for patrons was to men of all classes—the trader, the lawyer, the gentleman, the labourer —because strong class divisions were another form of endogenous diversity amongst colonial Melburnians. A fancy restaurant such as the Strand in London — on which Spiers and Pond modeled their Melbourne establishment —would never have so blatantly encouraged the patronage of shopkeepers and bank clerks. It was unlikely that these men could have afforded to sit at its tables anyway as there was a distinct correlation between money and class in Britain. Despite the best efforts of the socially advantaged in Melbourne to maintain such distinctions the Victorian gold rush had leveled the economic playing field. If a man had the money, no matter how he had come by it, Spiers and Pond were not shy of publically welcoming his business. The Criterion was also ‘caste’ free: Cuthbert Featherstonhaugh, newly arrived in Melbourne from England, was quite taken aback to see the man who had carted his luggage from the dock to his lodgings taking his dinner in the up-market surrounds of the Criterion.

While money could buy a nouveaux riche man a bowl of real turtle soup, a ‘choice’ steak or chop, broiled before him on the ‘colossal’ coal-fired grill that was a feature of the Café de Paris dining room, by a chef with a ‘continental’ accent; several glasses of good Bordeaux, perhaps recommended by Spiers himself who was also a wine merchant; and a cup of café au lait —equal to that found in the ‘city on the banks of the Seine’—at the Café de Paris, it could not buy him ‘breeding’. And what Melbourne’s self made men wanted most was to be considered respectable and civilised, or well-bred, but they could not learn the subtleties of etiquette and table manners directly from their social superior,s because they would not have them at their domestic dining tables. They could though, because they had money, dine at the Café de Paris and there start to learn how to progress, as one enamoured patron commented, in the ‘art of surrounding [yourself] with the elegances and comforts of life’.  In the dining room of the Café the self-made man could, by observing the dining practices and etiquette of the upper- class gentlemen at the next table, gain an education in how to behave and eat and drink in the most ‘civilised’ way. By opening their doors to ‘all ‘Spiers and Pond, and Ross, contributed to the leveling of social distinctions and to the development of the egalitarian ethos of Australian society.

Ross, Fauchery and Spiers and Pond had all returned to their respective native lands by the early1860s but they left behind the foundations of a hospitality industry that was enlarged upon by other young men of foreign birth as Melbourne continued on its gold money fuelled trajectory towards the booming metropolis it was to be in the 1880s. It will be interesting to see how our current cohort of young European émigrés might influence our modern eating and drinking habits.