A modern taste of history

I was old enough to earn my own living as a waitress during the recession ‘we had to have’ in the early 1990s. I remember that tips shrank and the unrestrained quaffing of champagne (not sparkling wine) ceased at the popular restaurant I worked in. So our current ride on the downward side of the economic cycle is only my second one but I know that sure as mince pies at Christmas that we will go back up and come down again no matter the repentful promises made. I know this because while researching a book on Melbourne’s food history I learnt that this cycle of boom and bust was a leitmotif in this city’s story. I also noted that it is not only our economic cycle that repeats itself. While the way we eat has majestically evolved there are several current food trends that are making a return appearance rather than a debut.

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Fruitier Melbourne 1856 Collection of the State Library of Victoria


Seasonal & local

Current food buzzwords such sustainable, seasonal, local and unadulterated, describe precisely the type of diet the Indigenous people of the Melbourne area ate before Europeans arrived. For tens of thousands of years they had fed themselves well while making little impact on the environment. They moved around their tribal lands with the seasons to gather their food, bowing to what nature was willing to offer them rather than pushing her to produce. European settlement destroyed most indigenous food sources and the rich natural gastronomic bounty of the region was irrevocably lost: we will never again eat a diet that is truly local and seasonal to Melbourne. What we can eat is the ‘new’ seasonal and local that was introduced by the white settlers.

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Coffee Stall Bourke Street 1863. Collection of the State Library of Victoria

Local Production

The appearance of small scale ‘boutique’ producers of food and drink such as beer, whisky, gin, cocoa and chocolate mirrors Melbourne’s earliest days. In the early 1840s many of the businesses in the town were small concerns in the food or beverage way (although these would not have been then described as boutique or artisan). There were flour millers, chocolate, cocoa and biscuit manufacturers, coffee roasters, cordial, ginger beer and aerated water producers, pickle-makers, confectioners and a curry powder fabricator amongst others. There were also three brewers and the beer brewed in Melbourne at this time really was ‘local’ using as it did water from the Yarra River: water that was naturally muddy and that served both as the town’s water supply and as the receptacle of its sewage, rubbish and industrial effluent. In 1843 John Mills was forced to close his brewery when it was suspected that his product had been responsible for the death of sixteen people.

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Melbourness pioneering 19th c street vendors. Collection of the State Library of Victoria



As the town grew into a city some small-scale producers grew into bigger concerns but even as they expanded they kept their means of production ‘local’. Melbourne biscuit company Swallow & Ariel milled their own flour and refined their own sugar (grown on company owned sugar plantations in Queensland). The iconic MacRobertson’s confectionary company made almost every component needed to make their products at their plant in Fitzroy. Raw cocoa kernels (from company owned plantations in New Guinea) were conched, roasted, ground and refined there before being turned into Old Gold chocolate, Cherry Ripe bars and Freddo Frogs. The machinery and moulds used to make or these sweets and the packaging for them was also made on site. Both companies also employed significant workforces during their years of operation.

Restaurant kitchen gardens

The modern Melbourne restaurateurs and chefs who have recently set up their own food gardens may or may not have taken their inspiration from some of the city’s seminal restaurateurs. In the 1870’s Parer’s Crystal Café in Bourke Street was one of the finest eating establishments in Melbourne, particularly noted for its high quality pork. The Parer family had immigrated to Melbourne from Barcelona in the 1860s and built up a solid reputation as Melbourne restaurateurs and caterers. The Parer’s kept a small farm at Box Hill where they raised the pigs that produced the celebrated pork on restaurant waste and grew much of the produce they used.

In the early years of the twentieth century Melbourne’s most celebrated restaurant —and at a gold guinea for dinner the most expensive —was Café Denat at 178 Exhibition Street (one of several sites it occupied) It was run by French-Swiss émigré Calexte Denat and his Australian born wife Mary Watson. Mary ran the dining room and the business side of the restaurant; Denat the kitchen and a market garden in East Brighton where he grew vegetables and fruit for the restaurant (he also purportedly consumed a bottle of brandy each day and put his cooking career to an end when he fell off a tram on his way home from the restaurant one evening).

To cope with the shortages of fresh fruit and vegetables during World War Two some of Melbourne’s Italian restaurateurs turned their domestic gardens to work growing vegetables to supplement the limited food they could buy.

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Victoria Market 1882. From the collection of the State Library of Victoria.


Thanks to the ‘recessionary climate ‘frugality’ has been declared fashionable. Luckily we can plunder the past for plenty of tips on making do with less in the kitchen. Modern ‘freegans’ (aka ‘dumpster divers’) choose to scavenge their food from rubbish bins or other cost neutral sources as an anarchist act. During the Great Depression scavenging a meal from waste sources was not a political act but a necessary means of survival. The writer Alan Marshall lived in Melbourne during the Depression and he witnessed hungry men patiently queuing at the backdoors of city restaurants waiting to receive the refuse of paid meals — chop bones, ‘nibbled portions of cheese’, ‘fatty salvages of steak’ and crusts of pies all mixed in with tea leaves and coffee grounds —for their dinner. One night a man sat down after him in a restaurant and ate the gristle Marshall had left on his plate.

The majority of families did not experience the extreme depravity faced by the men Marshall describes but Melbourne housewives had to be prudent with food, and energy, and not a bit of either was wasted. The peelings from various fruit was dried and used as tea; pumpkin skins were turned into jam and half cooked meals were removed from the stove and the hot saucepans wrapped in blankets or cushions to capture the heat and complete the cooking process. The commodious backyards of suburban Melbourne became a significant source of food during the Depression as people had the space to grow vegetables, keep poultry and cultivate fruit trees (they also saved municipalities some work by collecting any horse manure deposited on the streets to fertilise their gardens). All this food frugality stood people in good stead when World War Two broke out in 1939 and the demands of feeding the troops required that most foods be rationed.

Restaurant survival

Given that the restaurant industry is typically one of the first to feel the chill of an adverse financial climate a look at the experience of those who have weathered previous downturns might provide some sage advice. In 1893 Victoria’s banks closed for a week for what was euphemistically termed a ‘bank holiday’. The truth was that the banking system had collapsed, due in large part to the failure of numerous land speculation schemes, and Victoria went into a devastating depression. Melbourne’s restaurant proprietors quickly adapted and brought their prices down; even the most expensive restaurants charged no more than what was a very reasonable two shillings and sixpence for a six-course dinner. This strategy seemed to work as the restaurant listings in the directory over the next few years show no discernible decrease in numbers. When the temporary citing of the new Australian parliament in Melbourne in 1901 returned the city to prosperity fancy establishments such as Café Denat were able to reinstate higher prices.

During the Great Depression Melbourne’s Italian restaurateurs allowed patrons to chalk up their debt on a blackboard to be paid when circumstances permitted. This kept their businesses going but it was also a small act of humanity in hard times. On the heels of the Depression Café Petrushka —‘the only Russian kitchen’ in town opened in Collins Street. Its popularity with the city’s bohemian crowd made it madly fashionable but its patrons were not always flush with cash. The proprietors allowed hard-up patrons to assist them with market shopping or handwrite the menu in exchange for a meal.

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Cafe de Paris Bourke Street 1862. Collection of the State Library of Victoria.


Waste Not

Even after World War Two ended Britain continued to endure food shortages and rationing. To assist our British kin in coping with this instigated a ‘Fat for Britain’ campaign was instigated. The good citizens of Melbourne were encouraged to collect the excess fat extruded from their roasts and chops and donate it at ‘fat depots’ from where it was collected, consolidated and shipped to London (by which time it was usually rancid). With a bit of luck we wont have to reinstate fat collection to support anybody through these current hard times but if you are looking for some suggestions on more economical use of your food here are some rather good recipes from Melbourne’s food heritage that you may like to try.

Margaret Pearson was a popular Melbourne cookery teacher and cookbook author in the later decades of the nineteenth century. A Scot by birth she prided herself on ‘economy’ in her cookery so this recipe would have been dear to her heart as it employs stale cake (which might otherwise been shown the bin) – quite deliciously – to make it.

Pineapple Pudding


Serves 6

250 g fresh pineapple, thinly sliced

1 cup brown sugar

1 small plain cake (preferably a few days old), sliced 


Butter a deep pie dish and line the bottom with slices of pineapple. Strew with sugar and continue to do this in layers until the pineapple is used up. Cover the top with slices of cake. Pour a cup of hot water over the cake and cover it with buttered foil. Bake at 160 °C for 60 minutes or until pineapple is cooked through and the water absorbed.   Serve hot with cream.

Devilled Bones 

‘Deviling’ foods was popular in the Edwardian era and it was often applied to left-overs to permit them to make a encore appearance on the dining table. This recipe for devilled bones is from the 1905 edition of Mrs Maclurcan’s Cookery Book (Maclurcan was a Queenslander but this edition was published in Melbourne by George Robertson & Company so I give it a pass as a ‘Melbourne book’).


Serves 4

bone from a lamb roast

cooked chicken bones

1 teaspoon mustard powder (or to taste)

30 g butter

cayenne pepper

salt to taste

a little melted butter


Chop the bones to a medium size and score them with a knife. Mix the mustard powder with the butter, cayenne pepper and salt to taste. Rub this mixture into the scores you have made on the bones. Grill the bones until hot and then sprinkle a little more melted butter over them.  Serve hot with homemade potato chips.

Grilled Open Sandwiches  

The rationing of food during World War Two actually served to improve the diet of Australians as they ate less meat, saturated fat and sugar. The domestic economy columns of Melbourne’s newspapers were full of tips and recipes to help housewives ‘stretch’ their meat rations and to create sweet treats using significantly reduced quantities of sugar.This recipe comes from an article ‘How to stretch your meat ration’ from the Argus, 7 May 1945.


Makes 3 sandwiches

2 red apples

1 teaspoon sugar

45 g bacon fat (this would have been saved from cooking bacon; use butter if you don’t have any)

6 sausages

6 slices bread

170 g cheddar cheese, sliced

salt and pepper


Core the apples and cut into slices ¼ inch thick, sprinkle each slice with a little sugar and bacon fat or butter. Grill under a slow heat until tender. Cut the sausages in half lengthwise and grill or dry fry.

Toast the bread slices, spread lightly with bacon fat or butter and on each slice place hot grilled apple, the two sausage halves and season with salt and pepper. Top with cheese and grill under a low heat until the cheese melts. Serve at once.

Austerity Pudding

This recipe for a steamed pudding appeared in the Age in August 1943. Its sweetness is gained from the inclusion of fresh carrot or parsnip and dried fruit.


Serves 6

475 g plain flour

½ teaspoon bicarb soda

30 g sugar

60 g suet*

90 g breadcrumbs

115 g dried fruit (chop finely if using larger fruits such as figs)

115 g raw carrot, parsnip or beetroot, grated

150 ml pint milk


Sift the flour, bicarb soda and the sugar together into a bowl. Rub the suet into the flour. Mix in the breadcrumbs, dried fruit and grated vegetable. Stir in the milk and pour into a steaming dish (if you don’t have such a dish, cover a heat-proof bowl firmly with aluminum foil and secure with string). Place in a large pot of boiling water and steam for 2 hours. Serve hot.

*suet is available from supermarkets; you can substitute butter but the pudding will have a heavier texture.