Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

History revisited – past offers food for thought

Next week I will resume my story of New England’s fight for self government, looking at the tumultuous years of the Great Depression. Today a little on food.

Port Macquarie, Tuesday 20 August 1844. The wedding party gathered for the wedding lunch. The seventeen year old Annabella Boswell recorded the event in her journal.

“The table was literally covered”, she wrote. “I do not think that it would have held another glass, for in every crevice were placed custards, jellies and creams. At one end was the largest turkey I ever saw, well supported by hams, tongues, chickens, ducks, pies, tarts, puddings, blanc mange, and various fruits.”

In those simple words, you can see the loaded table. Makes me hungry just to think about it!

Now track forward. While I was a day boy, as a sub monitor or monitor I used to eat at TAS when I was on duty. Mutton stews and huge heavy puddings draped in (I think) Golden Syrup were standard fare. That’s a huge remove from that 1844 wedding feast. So what happened?

In his book One Continuous Picnic, Michael Symons attempts to trace the history of Australian food. Symons is biased, his views formed by living in Tuscany during the 1970s where he fell in love with Tuscan life as so many Australians have. He has a particular romantic view.

Accepting that, Symons argues that the creation of a unique Australian national cuisine was an opportunity missed. Between the late 1800s and early 20th century, before the processing and industrialisation of food took full hold, Australia had city farms and markets and a host of keen, cosmopolitan gourmets.

If you had lived in Armidale during the 1870s, you would have drunk the local beer or, perhaps, a wine from a local property. Your flour might have come from Kelly’s Plains and been locally milled. The milk and meat came from local animals. You grew your own vegetables, while your chooks provided eggs and meat.
Much of this vanished in a few decades as the railway brought cheaper products from other areas. There was no time for that trial and error using local ingredients that created the peasant cuisine of Tuscany. Food and drink was standardised, homogenised, although some local differences survived.

The world continues to change. A few weeks back, and by accident, a friend and I ended up at Cammeray Craft. There, distant from Armidale, I had a New England beer before lunch, followed by a rather fine New England wine, one of a number on the menu. I was very pleased, chatting to the owner about New England wine and food.

History begins in the present. It would be nice to think that in fifty years’ time the then history writer for the Express might be able to chart the rise of a New England cuisine!
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 15 October 2014. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014.

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