A culinary history of Melbourne

By Sara Schwarz
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Flavours of Melbourne - A culinary biography

Flavours of Melbourne - A culinary biography [©Wakefield Press (Aust) Pty Ltd]

Flavours of Melbourne: a culinary biography by Charmaine O’Brien has revitalized my passion for this, my adopted city of Melbourne. It has inspired me this winter to rug up and explore her culinary past which permeates the Yarra river and tributaries, the many parks and open spaces,  the finest of roads and darkest of laneways.

Having been raised and educated ‘north of the border’, my rather parochial Australian history education focused entirely upon the arrival of Captain Cook to Sydney’s Botany Bay in 1788 and the subsequent boat loads of British convicts who spent years boiling the life and the flavour from vegetables and meat. It was somewhat surprising for me therefore to discover that Melbourne was illegally settled in 1835 by sheep farmers from Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), who desired to expand the grazing land for their growing flocks.

John Batman, whom the aforementioned sheepfarmers sent as representative of their interests, made a treaty with the indigenous Wurundjeri people (which unfortunately was very much ignored by later settlers), however ‘forgot’ to mention their intentions to the ruling New South Wales government. It wasn’t until late 1837 when the government of the day, realizing the futility of fighting the situation, declared Melbourne an official town and began to charge the population taxes accordingly.

This is only one of many facts, anecdotes, character sketches and recipes that make up this wonderfully readable guide to Melbourne’s culinary history. The book brings to life the many booms and bust times which Melbourne has been through, the waves of immigration and the individuals and groups upon whose shoulders, the city’s current reputation for fine food, wine and dining, sits.

Beginning with the wholesome and satisfying diets of the Wurundjeri people, who were said to be strong, tall and to have teeth a Duchess would be envious of, the book then traces the diets and lifestyles of the first white settlers through to current times.

Along the way we encounter delightful tales including what has to be one of Australia’s largest food fights in 1867, when 60,000 to 100,000 gathered to welcome Prince Alfred to Melbourne. When the Prince refused to leave his accommodation (fearing the size of the crowd), the masses, in frustration turned their attentions to demolishing a magnificent feast that had been set out in the Zoological Gardens. The serving staff tried to dissuade the masses by throwing loaves of bread, while locals threw wine and beer at one another and stole all the cutlery.

Set in amidst such fascinating insights into the lives of Melbournites over the years are a number of recipes reflecting the ingredients available and the key influencers of culinary standards at various points in Melbourne’s history. Some of the recipes such as roo tail soup from the late 1800s are inspiring and will be sure to grace our dinner table over the months to come, while others included more for their historical interest, perhaps have less appeal to our current palates but would be wonderful to use as a basis for unique dinner parties with friends.

There's certainly plenty of fodder for these straightened economic times, too, recycled from the busts of the 1890s and 1930s. If you didn't listen to grandma, here's your chance. Or for those who prefer to retrace the culinary past via Melbourne's modern-day restaurants, cafes and cake shops, there's a wonderful selection of recommendations.

An educational and enjoyable read for anyone with an interest in learning more about Melbourne’s history, my recommendation this winter is to select a favourite café (a list of historically important ones is provided) with good coffee and comfy chairs and ask your waitperson to ensure the beverages keep on coming. I wish they'd taught this kind of history at school!


Flavours of Melbourne: a culinary history is published by Wakefield Press, (Australia; 2008). RRP A$39.95

VisitVineyards.com subscribers receive a 20% DISCOUNT when buying this book directly through Wakefield Press. Details and link here »

Visit Charmaine O'Brien's website www.lovefoodwrite.com




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May 31st, 2009
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