Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Kabell Mockbell and his coffee empire. Part 2.

Kabell Mockbell began his coffee empire in the Imperial Arcade in Sydney. In August 1894 he was advertising real pure mocha coffee 'as supplied to the best restaurants in Paris' in the Sydney Morning Herald (1 August). He sold green beans, freshly roasted beans and ground coffee and guaranteed that it was free from chicory or any other form of adulteration. Coffee lovers were urged to visit Mockbell's 'nicely fitted rooms' to imbibe coffee made in true Parisian style, and his coffee was recommended as a brain stimulant and an antidote to alcohol. Potential patrons were advised that only coffee, cake or pastry were served - no tea or cocoa (Truth, 10 March 1895). In April 1896 Truth reported on the opening of 'Mockbell Bros. Oriental Cafe Salon' in the basement of the Imperial Arcade - a most 'recherché affair' involving musical entertainment and a supper, attended by 250 guests with Mr. J. C. Neild, MLA officiating. 

This article raises two interesting issues. Firstly it confirms that Mockbell quickly established important connections in Sydney - Neild (who you can read about here) was an interesting character in his own right - and secondly introduces the mystery of Mockbell and his brother.

It is clear that Mockbell began his business in partnership with someone, if only because they subsequently came to a parting of the ways. The Imperial Arcade coffee business continued to trade and advertise as Mockbell Brothers selling Fez brand coffee until Kabell Mockbell goes into voluntary bankruptcy in May 1901. T. Mockbell then makes it clear that he has no connection whatsoever with any K. Mockbell (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 May 1901).
The following May (Freeman's Journal, 13 May 1902) Kabell makes this announcement
Mr. Kabell Mockbell who opened business in the Imperial Arcade in 1894 and successfully carried it out until 1898 has been appointed manager of the Mocha Coffee Company, 88 King Street.
As we shall see it is indeed possible that Kabell severed his connection with the coffee business in 1898. From 1902 until 1906 the Mockbell 'brothers' traded in opposition to one another, both continually reiterating that they had no connection to the other. By 1904 Thabet Suby Mockbell has changed the name of the Imperial Arcade business to 'Suby's Cafe' (Freeman's Journal, 2 January 1904) but it would appear that the two 'brothers' are not on friendly terms. Things come to a head in 1906 when the Sydney Morning Herald  (3 March 1906) reports court proceedings taken by Kabell. The article states  that 'about 5 years ago' Kabell and a man named Thabet Suby were in a partnership which was dissolved.  Encountering each other recently in the street Thabet Suby has called Kabell 'insulting names' and threatened to kill him in a conversation reportedly conducted in Arabic.  In the same issue of the paper Kabell announces that he has taken over the Imperial Arcade business. Later that year Thabet Suby Mockbell's wife sues for divorce on the grounds of drunkenness, cruelty and adultery (Evening News, 30 November 1906).

That Thabet Suby is not Kabell's brother seems almost certain but who knows where the two met and how they became partners. The only other reference I have found is to Thabet Suby who enlisted in the AIF in Perth in 1915. On his enlistment papers his place of birth is given as Bombay, his age is recorded as 35 (although he is almost certainly older than that) and his occupation is given as 'tea and coffee merchant'.

Mockbell's relationship and dealings with Thabet Suby presumably started to deteriorate at the same time as his business interests started to expand. The Evening News of 22 July 1898 announced the opening of the factory of the Stamboul and Egyptian Cigarette Company, manufacturers of Fez brand cigarettes. Mockbell had established the local industry of cigarette making in William Street, manufacturing handmade cigarettes made from the best Turkish leaf. Originally employing 100 people it was hoped that 'with the wider scope federation would afford' he would eventually have 1000 employees. The opening ceremony was conducted by Edmund Barton (soon to become Australia's first prime minister) in the company of many notable figures including the Turkish and Italian consuls and the local member, Alderman John Norton, further evidence of Mockbell's network of connections. Everyone drank a toast to Federation and Kabell presented Barton with a silver cigarette holder and a cigarette case inscribed 'to the First of Australians' to commemorate the event. (see also Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July 1898; Truth, 24 July 1898)

Despite Mockbell's enthusiasm the cigarette business was short lived. In August 1899 the Evening News (4 August) was reporting that Kabell Mockbell and Julius Kemp were facing court charged with having conspired together 'to cheat and defraud the Stamboul and Egyptian Cigarette Co. Ltd. and the liquidator John Ramsay'. The whole story takes quite a bit of piecing together. It appears that Kemp and his wife had been brought to Sydney from Alexandria by Mockbell and the fraud in some way involved the payment to Kemp of wages and expenses. Further court proceedings revolved around charges of conspiracy and concerned various members of the local Syrian community who were shareholders in the cigarette company. The coffee business also appears to have been implicated in the bankruptcy (see Sydney Morning Herald, 29 November 1900 for notice of the dissolution of the partnership between T. Mockbell and J. Ramsay). Mockbell and Kemp are finally acquitted and Kabel turns his attention back to expanding his coffee business.

With the Thabet Suby affair behind him Mockbell's coffee empire goes from strength to strength. By 1914, according to the Sands Directory for that year, he has premises in Hoskin Place (off 86 Pitt Street), at 11 Pitt Street (near Circular Quay), 63 - 65 King Street, Angel Place (off 125 Pitt Street), 75 Elizabeth Street and at 192 Sussex Street.  That year, 1914, also saw him heading to Norfolk Island on behalf of the Federal Government to report on the possibilities for coffee cultivation there (Sunday Times, 1 March 1914). He reported back that there was nowhere more suitable for coffee growing in the southern hemisphere, all that was required to produce enough coffee to meet Australia's needs was systematic management and intense cultivation (Sydney Morning Herald , 23 March 1914;  Evening News, 23 March 1914). His report is available at the National Archives.

It would seem that even a hundred years ago Sydney was mad for coffee. From the very beginning Mockbell offered elaborate facilities to cater for large numbers of people. The original Oriental Cafe Salon in the Imperial Arcade boasted a ladies salon, a smoking room and both ladies' and gentlemen's lavatories  (which were perhaps a rarity elsewhere?) and was large enough to accommodate the 250 guests who attended the opening (Truth, 12 April 1896). When he opened the cafe at the bottom of Pitt Street, near Circular Quay, Mockbell advertised that it provided a separate room for ladies (with a separate entrance) and a gentlemen's smoking lounge, with tobacco of all kinds available for purchase, where dominoes could be played. He also recommend that ladies could have their parcels directed to the cafe without charge and that the cafe made an ideal stop on the way home after the theatre (especially for those catching the steam ferry).The premises were large, well lit and airy (Sydney Morning Herald ,28 February 1907; Evening News, 28 February 1907). The cafe in Angel Place was both an ideal business men's eating place and a Bohemian rendezvous (Sydney Morning Herald, 22 May 1911). His coffee lounges offered 'brain workers' a light lunch, a smoke, a game of dominoes and a coffee to see them through the afternoon (Evening News, 8 January 1919). Mockbell was nothing if not a shrewd promoter.

What is especially remarkable is the size of some of his cafes. In September 1913 he announced the opening of the new Commerce Cafe in Market Street which had accommodation for 200 people (Evening News, 22 September 1913). His coffee lounge in the basement of Daking House near Central railway station could cater for 600 people at a time (Evening News, 8 January 1919) and his premises at Wingello House in Angel Place could seat 1000! (Sydney Morning Herald , 30 August 1926).

By October 1930 there are eight Mockbell's coffee lounges scattered across the city (Daily Commercial News and Shipping List,  29 October 1930) but in July 1931 Mockbell is bankrupt once again (Sydney Morning Herald, 13 July 1931). And again the exact details of how this comes about are hard to piece together by just relying on mentions in the press. It appears that some time in 1920 Mockbell's business (Mockbell's Mocha Coffee Company) was formed into a limited company (Mockbell's Limited) and subsequently Kabell had a falling out with the directors. The consequence appears to be that he operated some coffee houses in his own right and some through the limited company. Around this time he also became involved with the Paris House restaurant and with La Corniche at Mona Vale. Although it isn't entirely clear I think this is the same La Corniche which had been started by Henri Rainaud around 1905/6. How or why Kabell became involved in this venture I do not know.

The Paris House connection is explained in the following extract from Sydney Looks Back (Isidore Brodsky, Angus & Robertson, 1957, pp. 128 - 129)

Ruskin Rowe, the architect, was having anxious moments in providing new and alternative accommodation for Mockbell, one of whose coffee and horseshoe-roll houses was blocking the clearing of the site for the New South Wales Government Savings Bank, now the Commonwealth Savings Bank, bounded by Castlereagh Street, Martin Place and Elizabeth Street. Jim Dooley, who was the State Premier, had already laid the foundation stone of the new project in 1922.

"In the end we had to persuade Mockbell to accept the old Paris House, though he had a seventeen-year lease to run”, Rowe said. “We refitted Paris House to give the show a good start; generals, admirals, the judiciary, the Premier, George Fuller, Danny Levy, and the town leaders were invited to the opening. Wonderful food and wine put everyone in a grand mood, and Mockbell was called upon to reply to a hearty toast. He spoke feelingly from the heart, in broken English, and praised everyone unstintingly, except the plumber, whom he had found asleep on the roof.”

Mockbell must have been responsible, in an indirect way, for the dissolving of many of the city’s tangled legal problems over a cup of coffee, for his was the home of the articled clerk and the law generally.

Mockbell claimed that both La Corniche and Paris House had been viable propositions up until 1927/28 but had more recently been running at a loss. Paris House (the subject of an upcoming post) had been part of the Sydney restaurant scene for nearly half a century when it finally closed its doors in 1931 (Burrowa News, 7 August 1931).

The Mockbell name struggled on. The limited company was in business at least until the late 1940s but the Mockbell family's attempts to keep trading were unsuccessful with Kabell's wife being declared bankrupt in 1935.

One final little snippet of detail about Kabell. A letter to the editor (Sydney Morning Herald, 29 December 1933) describes him as the 'esteemed chef' of the Cercle Français, a Sydney based society for 'musical and literary men', a position which he appears to have held for many years around 1890. The Cercle Français, despite the name, is described as 'a cosmopolitan institution' and appears to have been started in Sydney in 1886 (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 June 1887).  It was perhaps a forerunner to the Alliance Française which formally started in Sydney in 1899. The Cercle was distinguished by its excellent dinners - the meal for the Bastille Day celebrations in 1889 was described as neither unduly lavish or ostentatious, rather the menu was 'harmoniously perfect' and worthy of the gastronomic reputation of the club (Sydney Morning Herald, 15 July 1889). Was the man behind the menu Kabell Mockbell? Did he come to Sydney as a chef? Is this is how he made his living before starting his coffee business?

Whatever other skills he may have had Mockbell certainly seems to have made the best of his entrepreneurial talents and he made a significant contribution, in more ways than one, to the Sydney scene.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Kabell Mockbell and his coffee empire. Part 1.

Many memoirs of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s mention Mockbell's coffee salons as popular meeting places in Sydney and I'll write more about his coffee business at a later date. What interests me here is, who was Kabell Mockbell?

Exact details about where he was born are hard to pin down. He applied for citizenship three times and gave conflicting accounts of his origins. He was probably born in Istanbul, and claims to have been a Turkish national. He also states that his mother was Egyptian and he had served time as a cadet with the British military forces in Egypt. On his first application for naturalisation he claims to have been born in Yemen.

Whatever the truth he was a staunch supporter of the Turkish state, a friend of the Turkish ambassador in Sydney and, as his subsequent business interests in Sydney would suggest,  he also had close contacts in Egypt. He enjoyed dressing up in his traditional costume (described as an 'Arab costume of blue embroidered with gold' Sydney Morning Herald,  25 July 1896), he used the 'fez and Arabic writing' as a trade mark on his coffee products and decorated his coffee salons with 'Arabian' decorations (Evening News, 11 September 1896).

It is also difficult to determine when he arrived in Australia, it may have been as early as 1883 or possibly later, in 1890. He was certainly advertising his coffee by 1894 (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 August 1894). He married in 1907 and he and Adelaide Florence subsequently had three children, Lallah, Kabell junior and Fuad. He first applied for naturalisation in 1904 and was rejected. He applied again in 1914, claiming those indebted to him refused to pay monies owing because he was not a British subject. This application was rejected because at the time Turks were considered enemy subjects as well as being included under the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, which limited non-white immigration. His final application in 1926, by which time he was a very successful business man and his status as an enemy subject had changed somewhat, was accepted.

I have only uncovered the bare bones of Mockbell's history, but the change in his status and the challenges of being a Muslim, dark skinned and a wheeler dealer business man in Sydney in the years between Federation and the beginning of the Second World War make for an interesting story.

Kabell Mockbell appears to have made himself a significant figure Sydney in the early days of the twentieth century. Although he was only 5' 1" he made his presence felt. For example the Evening News reported his enthusiasm over the adoption of constitutional government by the Ottoman Empire in 1908 and what he hoped would be accomplished 'with the sympathy and diplomatic help' of the British, now that the Turk was civilised and 'no longer a ferocious and terrible monster' (Evening News, 26 January 1909). In the light of subsequent events it is poignant to read Kabelespousing his respect and reverence for Great Britain; he would give his last penny and his own life and that of his son in her defence.

The Evening News (25 July 1910) also reported a gathering of 'forty dark skinned representatives of the Ottoman Empire interspersed with a few white Australians' who met at Mockbell's residence in Lavender Bay ('Matoppo'/'Motoppo', 21 Arthur Street) to celebrate the second anniversary of the Ottoman constitution. Among the guests was the Mayor of Redfern, Alderman Leitch, whose municipality was the home of most of Sydney's Ottoman community. Although the Turks were now included in the immigration restriction laws it was noted that they had always proven themselves to be good citizens. The Ottoman ambassador, Arif Nassoor Bey, was quoted as saying
Great Britain stood by us in our past trouble, and with her continued support in the future, we hope to make Turkey advance with a free people, until it is a nation worthy in every sense of the position for which the Young Turk party has aimed.
With the outbreak of hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and Italy, which resulted in the defeat of the Ottomans and their withdrawal from Libya, Mockbell took it upon himself to refute newspaper reports of Turkish barbarity. As a solution to the conflict he proposed that England act as a referee and leave Turkey to work out her conflict with the Italians in her own way, confident that the Turks would be victorious. He called on his fellow Muslims to defend Tripoli and appealed for funds to be donated to the Turkish Relief Fund for soldiers involved in the Balkan War. (Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners Advocate, 19 January 1912. The conflict in Libya and the imminent defeat of the Ottomans encouraged nationalist groups in the Balkans to also take up arms against the Ottoman Empire. These conflicts were significant precursors to World War One.)

Mockbell's position as both a loyal Turk and a loyal supporter of the British Empire became more and more compromised and his pronouncements more and more reflective of his crisis of allegiance.
In a letter to the editor of the Evening News published on 1 September 1914, he wrote
As a Mussulman I know the sentiments of our people here and through your courtesy I ask the help of your paper in calling upon the people of our religion throughout Australia to get in communication with me, in order that we may consider the best means of showing to England and Australia how we can help the Empire in this, her hour of need. We have eaten your salt and are filled with the desire to call your people our brothers.
In his letter to the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs (10 November 1914), in support of his application for naturalisation, he laments his 'wretched position' as 'an enemy of the British community', a position forced upon him through no fault of his own, and is fervent in his desire to 'demonstrate to the people with whom I have been living for a long period that my loyalty to the British Crown and the people of Australia is as strong as ever'. He also makes it clear that he has no dealings with Germans or with German firms and that he deeply deplores the state of affairs forced upon his country by 'these brutal Teutons'.

In the Sunday Times  of 25 April 1915, a fateful day, under the heading 'Neutrals in Sydney Favour Allies' he is quoted as saying 'I want to see the British flag on top everywhere. I am an Egyptian Turk of Arab parentage'. Notwithstanding The Mirror of Australia (17 October 1915) accused Mockbell of having been the former consul-general for Turkey and having fought for Turkey in the last Balkan War.  Later the same newspaper denounced his coffee salons as meeting places for Germans. (Mirror of Australia, 17 October, 1915).

From the beginning of the war he donated generously to various charities including the Red Cross and the Lord Mayor's and the Patriotic Fund. He also donated cigarettes to the army and intriguingly is supposed to have made available 'information that would have been impossible to obtain otherwise'. At the end of the war Kabell donated the 'Khedive Suite', a suite of Egyptian furniture (reputedly inlaid with mother or pearl and decorated with Arabic mottoes and valued at 700 pounds),  to a raffle in aid of the AIF Memorial and War Chest Funds (Sydney Mail, 13 November 1918).

What Mockbell made of the post-war history of Turkey is unrecorded. As we shall see, although Kabell was no doubt a flamboyant personality, his business ventures were not entirely successful despite coffee salons across Sydney bearing his name. Kabel Mockbell died on 31 October 1936 (Sydney Morning Herald 2 November 1936).

Note: The information above, which is not attributed to newspaper sources, is taken from Kabell Mockbell's various applications for naturalisation which can be viewed on line at the National Archives of Australia.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

'Australian gustatory memories' in Focus

The 'Alimentary' column in Focus began with contributions from Oscar Mendelsohn's circle of friends which tended to limit its scope. Mendelsohn hoped that his journal would 'help raise eating in Australia to its rightful place as a fine art', his contention being that satisfying the senses of taste and smell was as important as satisfying those of sight and hearing. To that end he encouraged submissions from readers on eating facilities in all and any Australian cities and 'notes on food and beverages generally', assuring would-be contributors that 'we are willing to print reviews on new lines of foods and drinks as cheerfully as those of plays and books'. (Focus August 1946)

Not all his readers were as enthusiastic about the notion of raising eating to a fine art. In September 1947 Mendelsohn published a letter from 'B.C' of Milson's Point, Sydney under the heading of 'Alimentary Fan Mail',
Alimentation - phooey! I belong to the C.B.C. (Corned Beef and Carrots) cult. (Can you beat the dish, mother's masterpiece on washing day?) Candidly, Focus is generating a tribe of food fanatics. There is a nitwit element in mankind which refuses to learn the rudiments of alimentation, and flits from dish to dish in the hope of finding an elixir.
What poor old B.C. would make of our current fascination with food we can only try to imagine. However, he needn't have been too concerned that things would change in Australia any time soon.

For the September 1946 edition 'Pot' contributed another piece for the 'Alimentary' column entitled 'Australian Gustatory Memories'. Here he lamented that, although the Italian and Chinese restaurants were all 'reliable and artistic', they actually meant little in the grand scheme of things.
They have catered only to a small stratum of the community - mainly the artists and other intellectuals who have sensibly elected to carry their good living to the stomach as well as the mind - together with a still smaller section of the arty, to whom such places are mildly interesting; also, they have retained all their native character and are in no sense Australian.
According to 'Pot' breakfast was the best meal to be had in Australia, even allowing for 'the dreadful and atrociously expensive manufactured and depreciated cereals' copied from the US, the grey coffee and the 'leathery' fried eggs. He extolled 'the simple combination of a grilled steak with an egg coyly perched on it' as 'one of the few Australian culinary inventions'.
When the steak is  really grilled and not deep-fried and the egg is poached or lightly fried on both sides, and if there are some piping hot, crisp chipped potatoes on the plate, a good start of the day is assured.
He also suggested that a really good breakfast would include a selection of properly chilled fruit juices.

For lunch, 'Pot' praised the culinary inventiveness of the 'double-cut roll' which he attributed to Adelaide. This was a variant on the American triple decker sandwich, but in Adelaide, where he believed Australia's best bakeries were to be found, the fillings were of better quality and more varied than elsewhere. Most sandwiches, he implies, made use of some variation on 'flabby Kraft cheese' and 'dry, dark-hued corned beef'.

Alas steak, eggs and chips and well prepared sandwiches do not make an Australian cuisine.

Aside from one or two memorable meals, all of them pre-war, Pot had little to say in praise of Australian cooking. In general there seemed to be a lack of respect for freshness and precious little inventiveness. When it came to crayfish for example the Americans grilled them, and produced chowders or fried them in butter but the best Australia could do was a curried version which he described as 'dreadful'. Similarly in most places in Australia roast beef was 'respectable enough' but 'rather dull' when all it needed was 'the intelligent use of herbs' to make it into something much more interesting. And this from a man whose favourite breakfast was a well prepared steak, a non-leathery egg and crisp chips!

 Two things should be noted about Pot's remarks. Firstly, he was talking about food served outside the home, so we shouldn't assume that 'B.C' and other members of the Corned Beef and Carrots cult were necessarily averse to, or unfamiliar with, the use of chives and lemon thyme and rosemary as Pot suggests. And the meals he praises are all remembered from a time before there were any war time restrictions , when oatmeal porridge could be eaten with unlimited amounts of thick cream.

None the less, these themes - lack of any cuisine that could really be called Australian; lack of respect for freshness despite a preponderance of good ingredients;  simple, unadorned food that could best be described as 'dull';  a readiness to adopt manufactured and 'depreciated' products; and a general disinterestedness in the notion of eating as a 'fine art' - all raise their heads again the best part of forty years later in Michael Symons' One Continuous Picnic. But it's hard not to have a bit of sympathy for B.C and his CBC brigade. There really isn't anything wrong with a good piece of corned beef, carrots, peas, mashed potato, some white sauce, or maybe even some cauliflower cheese. Today we would call this 'comfort food', to turn to when we are tired of flirting from one new dish to the next. The secret of these 'dull' meals is all in the quality of the ingredients and, most importantly, the care of the cook. Perhaps we should consider that B.C's mother really did have the skill to produce a masterpiece on washing day.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

'Focus' on food in Sydney

After Pot's review of the Melbourne restaurant scene, Focus turned its attention to eating in Sydney for the 'Alimentary' column in the next edition, July 1946. In this instance the writer was Minka Veal. Minka was the Australian born daughter of Russian-Jewish parents who had established a clothing factory in Flinders Lane - A. Wolman Pty Ltd.  Minka began her working life in the clothing factory but the business foundered during the depression which meant she had to find an alternative living. In 1937 she opened the Café Petrushka  with Jessie Sumner. Here they served Russian tea in delicate glasses and a menu of Russian specialties such as borscht, cabbage rolls and halva. Although the café closed in 1939, during its brief life it was a popular haunt of theatrical celebrities, journalists, artists and writers, the likes of Albert Tucker, Max Meldrum, Alan Marshall and Hayward Veal. Minka and Hayward were married in 1944 and left Australia in 1951. (You can read more about Hayward Veal here.)

While she only wrote this one column for Focus before the magazine folded, Minka Veal was perhaps the first female restaurant critic in Australia. With some minimal qualifications to judge other eating establishments Minka nonetheless saw Sydney through the eyes of a Melbournian. Fortunately there was some good news, since new licensing laws had been introduced in New South Wales. Although the regulations were still quite restrictive, restaurants in Sydney can now be licensed to serve wine with a meal of not less than two-courses between noon and 2 p.m. and again from 6 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. provided that all bottles and glasses had been removed from the tables by 9 p.m. Even so Minka describes Sydney as 'a city which probably has, on the whole, the worst collection of eating places for any city of its size'. The only places which remain open at night (that is after 8 p.m.) are the Repins cafes and the Monterey, where the service is good 'but the best they can offer a hungry diner is something on toast'.

Vere Mathews restaurant, in King Street, has been taken over by Tom Hills, who has made some changes. Notably the staff are now gracious and smile, they don't interrupt diners' conversations and they have learnt to present the bill face down. All of which Minka implies make the place much more civilised although she has nothing to say about the quality of the food.

Mockbell's coffee shops have a colourful history of their own which I will write about at a later date. By 1946 however Mockbell's was not to Minka's taste. She calls it 'one of the worst cafes in Sydney', 'everything about it is appalling', with its stifling atmosphere and outdated decor. Although she does grudgingly list the best things to eat there - lamb's fry, devilled kidneys, grilled chops and chicken sandwiches.

The Oriana Café in King's Cross was much more her style. With a large inside room and an open-air area 'near enough to be called a pavement cafe', the Oriana also boasted a talented pianist as well as good food, in particular their apricot cake.

Rainaud's and Prunier's were both laudable. At Prunier's in particular everything was 'tops', the meat tender, the claret 'just right', the selection of Continental dishes 'excellent' and the three rooms 'furnished in simple good taste'. At Gleneagles however she had been served 'grilled steak and roast chicken ...  which my husband certainly wouldn't eat if I served it to him at home'.

She also lavished praise on Kanimbla. Always crowded Kanimbla offered excellent value for money and a good range of dishes, huge T bone steaks and tender juicy roast duck and chicken. The 'sourcrout' here also rated highly - 'just like my mother used to make'. Plainly furnished this was' not the sort of place to linger in' but attracted clients who took their food seriously.

The Florentino, in Elizabeth Street, was popular with university students (and priests, according to Minka) since it offered a cheap meal but the food was not good. Minka found the soup was never served hot enough and there was never enough sauce on the spaghetti. Margaret Fulton also frequented the Florentino, which she says was popular with 'fringe bohemians and the impecunious'. She describes the restaurant as like a private club, a different world where 'journalists, artists and other bohemian riffraff were at ease'.

Rainauld's had been established for many years by the time Minka dined there. I am uncertain who owned Prunier's in June 1946. According to Ted Moloney, Tony Geminis opened Pruniers on 1 April 1947, but he may have taken over an established restaurant? Nonetheless Moloney considered Pruniers was still 'the place to go' in 1967 (Sun Herald 23 July) and Tony Geminis was still in charge, and the restaurant's reputation still intact, when Leo Schofield wrote about it again in 1988 (Sydney Morning Herald 17 May). Sadly there is no general history of the restaurant scene in Sydney so the details of many of these restaurants is at best sketchy.

For Minka the Chinese eating places could not compare to Melbourne.
Although I know their vegetable delicacies are unobtainable now, I cannot become accustomed to finding large quantities of sliced carrots and cauliflower in my Chinese dishes. The best of a bad lot, I think, are the Shanghai, the Modern China, the Tien Tsin and the Nankin.
The Hong Kong was the most European of the lot with salt, pepper and sugar on every table. According to Minka 'the personnel in the place seems to be the most Chinese part of it'.

And so ends her first and it seems last foray into restaurant criticism. Minka and Hayward left Australia not long after this and did not return until 1968. It would be interesting to know what she thought of Sydney's restaurants twenty some years later.

Fulton, Margaret 1999, I sang for my supper, Lansdowne, Sydney.

Friday, February 20, 2015

'Focus' on food in Melbourne

Oscar Mendelsohn is often referred to as a 'polymath', which essentially means that he is one of those people who managed to pack so much into one life that reading about them is exhausting.
Trained as a chemist he ran an analytical laboratory in Melbourne and was a great advocate of civilised dining but for a much more comprehensive account of all his interests and achievements see the entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography here
During the 1960s he published a number of books which reflect his interest in food and drinking - such as From cellar and kitchen, A salute to onions: some reflections on cookery and cooks, A dictionary of drinks and drinking - and was a regular contributor to Epicurean magazine- 'a journal dedicated to the appreciation of the finer things' and the first Australian magazine devoted entirely to food and wine.

In the late 1940s Mendelsohn edited a short-lived journal called Australian Focus Monthly or just Focus. I am a bit hazy on the exact details of this publication. A journal called View, a journal of opinion  ran for four editions from February 1946 (volume 1, number 1) to May 1946 and then became Focus, the Australian journal of opinion for two editions, June (volume 1, number 5) and July 1946. The first edition under the title Focus Monthly was August 1946 (volume 1, number 7). Focus appears to have ceased publication with the edition for September 1948. In this journal Mendelsohn addressed the issues of interest to him with the aim of providing  his readers with a publication 'catering for intellectuals and presenting a point of view unbiased by party political prejudices or powerful sectional interests'.

The first Focus (June 1946) introduced a column called 'Alimentary'. Over the years this was authored by a variety of people and covered a range of topics. What interests me are the restaurant reviews.
The first 'Alimentary' was titled 'Eating in Melbourne' and began
As befits the second-largest Australian city with the worst climate, the drabbest architecture and the most wowsery controls, there has to be compensation somewhere, and Melbournites find one avenue of it in restaurants. There can be little doubt that the eating places of Melbourne are the best in Australia. By best I mean, of course, in quality of food. And to be good they have to be very much so - good in spite of the dearth of wine licenses and the puritanical prevention of anything that might tend to mitigate the effects of the winter, ten years of Country Party rule and the edicts of the Housewives' Association. ... For good cooking at reasonable prices, Melbourne is far ahead of every other Australian capital, and indeed, for food alone, not noticeably below civilised European and American standards.
The author of this paean to Melbourne signed himself 'Pot'. The editor describes 'Pot' as 'a regular contributor' who may have been L. L. Politzer.  Politzer was a writer and translator, originally from Munich, who wrote for 'Alimentary' under his own name in later editions (February 1947, September 1947).

Pot wrote enthusiastically about the Italian and Chinese restaurants in Melbourne. His Italian favourite was the Society Restaurant, 'a  pleasant place' where 'the minestrone and the spaghetti are always reliable'. The best value for money in Australia however was to be found at Nello Borghesi's Hoddle Restaurant in Collins Street. The San Lina, in Exhibition Street, is 'cheerless' but 'satisfactory'. Although not the place it had been, the Florentino remained 'steadily good' somewhere to be relied upon for 'civilised food and deft service'. Mario's also rated a mention as 'much improved'.

Pot's articles mention some of the changes in the restaurant culture wrought be the war years.  The Italian Society Restaurant had changed its name to simply the Society as 'a wartime concession', and Mario's had thrown off 'the hectic, pseudo-naughty atmosphere, and the rather arrogant attitude of the U.S. Army days'. The war years had meant austerity both in the home and in restaurants with controls on prices and a shortage of ingredients and of suitable staff. Some restaurants chose to close altogether. On the plus side war work brought many more civilian workers into the city and the arrival of American troops (in 1942 and 1943), who came with money in their pockets, meant even more mouths to feed and a reasonably prosperous time for some restaurants and cafes. Menus were often changed to accommodate the American's palates. As Pot's comments suggest their presence may not have always been to the good but their fondness for Chinese restaurants in particular is credited with being a milestone in the popularising of Chinese cuisine in Australia.

For the servicemen a Chinese restaurant was somewhere  cheap, a source of familiar food for many and particularly attractive because most were open late into the evening and open on Sundays.
Pot found the Chinese places, of which 'there are dozens, both in the city and in the suburbs', all 'reasonably satisfactory' although the best are 'outwardly repulsive or off the beaten track'.
In truth, you cannot go seriously wrong in any Melbourne Chinese place, provided it is not equipped with a radio or other obvious European improvement.
Although standards were down because of the difficulty of obtaining imported ingredients he could still recommend the Dim Sims, Bor Lor Kie and the Kie Sie Min. The Tien Tsin he claims as 'one of the best outfits of its kind in Australia' but his top choice is 'that repulsive dump, the Chung Wah'.

Other places Pot noted include the Melbourne Oyster Saloon for seafood, the 'solid, unpretentious, inexpensive' fare at Kanis (both of which he  later classifies as 'hearty, essentially masculine places', of which Melbourne has too few), the superb food (although perhaps not the floor show) at Claridge's, and the Riverside Inn where they were 'making a brave and commendable effort to provide fine food under civilised conditions' although he feared it would become very expensive once the war time controls on prices were removed. He was also able to recommend a handful of places in 'the two-bob and  under class' providing hearty meals. The meals at Melbourne hotels however were undistinguished and 'no better than they ought to be'.

By November 1946 the restraints of the war years were being cast off.
Many of the most interesting and civilised of the restaurants have been expanding, spring-cleaning, furnishing, re-allocating and generally showing a determined effort to consider the interests of customers.
Whilst there was still no question of 'the present superiority of Melbourne restaurants over those in Sydney', Sydney had taken 'a real advance towards a grown-up attitude to life' by introducing new liquor licensing laws making it possible for restaurants to serve light alcoholic beverages.
Staff numbers were returning to normal, more tables were available and the 'soddening influence' of the Americans was fading so that the diner could now expect to be greeted with 'smiles, good humour and an evident desire to please'.

Most of the places which closed during the war (usually restaurants attached to hotels) have reopened. The Society has opened a new upper floor, the standards at the Florentino remain high,  the Latin continues its 'good-natured service', and Molina's has come back to life setting 'a standard in the intimate, family type restaurant in the best Continental tradition' (although the meal he describes - antipasto, scalloped oysters, fried chicken, chunky fillet mignon and a rum omelette sounds unremarkable and not particularly 'continental'). Change has not however been all to the good. The Ritz in Lonsdale Street has been taken over by an Australian and now offers 'a drab menu of commonplace cooking'  reflecting a lamentable decline in standard.

Pot returned to the Melbourne restaurant scene in April 1948. All is still well, the standard of food and service continuing to improve but 'Mediterranean cooking, especially that of Italy, has almost monopolised the upper strata of Melbourne'.
Admiration though I have for the Italian alimentaria, I still regret the sameness that is creeping over our Melbourne eating houses. The pasta may be a little better here, the antipasto there, and so on, but these differences are not extreme. What one does miss in Melbourne is true variety.
Despite the Chinese restaurants and the Greek 'steak-a-d'oysts (quite Australian and extremely useful)', the afore mentioned Mediterranean places and the 'characterless' international fare to be had at the big hotels Pot felt that there should be more. Why no Scandinavian, or German or other Central European restaurants, and why not 'a first-class Indian establishment'?

Tired of Italian conformity Pot rated the Occidental Hotel in Collins Street as the best place to eat in Melbourne. Expensive yes, but good value. A close second was the London Hotel where the meal 'must be unsurpassed in the world to-day for value' - soup, fish, entree, poultry, sweets, coffee and salad could be had for an outlay of only 5/-.

Thirty years on much had changed of course although not perhaps the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne. When Peter Smark compiled his Eating Out in Melbourne 1977 he did include one restaurant where the food was' basically Scandinavian' and one where the food was classified as 'Bavarian' out of a total of 125. In addition three Indian restaurants and three serving Hungarian food were also considered worthy of inclusion. The five Greek restaurants listed had moved beyond steak and oysters. Smark's selection also included 17 French restaurants, 18 Italian and eight classified as Cantonese. The biggest group, 42, fell into the catch-all of 'International'. Whilst it might still be true that the Italian restaurants had a certain sameness about them there can be no dispute that Melbourne no longer lacked the variety to satisfy even a demanding critic like Pot.

To read more about the development of the restaurant scene in Melbourne see Charmaine O'Brien's Flavours of Melbourne. A culinary biography (Wakefield Press, 2008). The influence of American serviceman on the popularity of Chinese restaurants in Melbourne is covered by Barbara Nichol here.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The fascination of Fasoli's

 Louis Esson immortalised Fasoli's in this poem which was first published in the Bulletin in 1906.

The Temple of Bohemia, it boasts no golden gate
It flaunts no marble corridor to lure folk to their fate;
But down the pavements dreary, towards one dim lamp's glow,
Fasoli's draws the pilgrims where the good Bohemians go.

Oh! that bottle-laden table! Oh! the mixed and merry scenes!
And oil and garlic mingled with that salami and beans!
Fat macaroni festoons, and pungent, ruddy wines -
Oh! 'tis Bacchus waves his thyrsus where the Latin Quarter dines.

The world is spun of patchwork; and some there are belong
To prayer and holy living, and some to dance and song;
And some explore the cloister to find the key to Truth - 
But some prefer the wine-shop and the commonwealth of Youth.

Italian, Swiss and German, French, Chilian and Russ
They fraternise with Cockney, and with Yid and Yank and Us.
They've humped their swags from God knows where, the whirling wide world round,
But in old Fasoli's wineshop they meet on common ground.

And there's rich and poor all talking in the tongues of all the earth;
There's dominoes and piquet, and there's long-resounding mirth;
There's every brand of rover making merry at the bar,
And there's smoke, and wine, and strumming of the harp and gay guitar.

All the creed and caste are buried; there's only man to man -
A strange Australian picture of the Cosmopolitan.
And there's no bad blood among them, though their arguments may roll
From the price of beer in China to the future of the soul.

The world is spun of patchwork, and some there are belong
To prayer and holy living, and some to dance and song;
A rocky road to Heaven, a sloping path to Hell - 
But which road is the right one? ... Good God, it's hard to tell!

The Temple of Bohemia, it boasts no golden gate,
It flaunts no marble corridor to lure folk to their fate;
But song and mirth and mateship; ah, well, 'tis wise to know
That wine-splashed road of Bacchus that the good Bohemians go.

No history of dining in Melbourne, indeed no history of dining in Australia seems to be complete without a mention of Fasoli's. But Fasoli's fame rests, as Esson's poem suggests, not on the food served there but on the atmosphere of the place and the people who met there. The story of Fasoli's also taps into the wider story of Italian immigration and the influence Italians have had on the dining culture in Australia.

The establishment at 110 Lonsdale Street which Vincent or Vicenzo Fasoli took over in 1897 had originally been established as the 'Pension Suisse' as early as 1864. Abraham Gascard, the first owner, appears to have run the place as a lodging house (in the Argus 2 April 1865 p. 5 he is described as a 'lodging house keeper , Lonsdale Street') but also advertised 'Gascard's genuine colonial wines' which could be purchase for 1s a bottle or 4d a tumbler at 135 Bourke Street east (Argus, 7 November 1866, p.8). Gascard and his brother Jules appear to have been keen businessmen and associated with wine making and wine makers in the Rutherglen area. In a letter to the Argus (25 August 1870) Abraham Gascard describes himself as 'one of the oldest retailers of colonial wine'.

In 1868 the 'Pension Suisse and Colonial Wine Shop' passed into the hands of another Swiss, Colestin (or Coelestine/Celestine) Frey. Frey had been making wines on Sutherlands Creek outside Geelong and remained in Lonsdale Street until 1882. There were several other licensees in the ensuing years, Carlo Brocco 1883/1884, Monigatti, Fedelle and Co. 1885, Imhoff (Charles) and Co. (Imhoff was a member of the Swiss Society of Victoria) 1886 - 1888, Carlo Pescia 1890 - 1893, Angelo Piezzi 1893 - 1896 (Piezzi had previously held the license for the Colonial wine hall at 57 Exhibition Street) and finally Valentino Franzone who took over from Piezzi in 1896 and then handed over to Fasoli in 1897. Franzone went on to run an Oyster Saloon, advertised as a first-class restaurant charging 3d a course at 399 Sydney Road, Brunswick.
Although the exact lines of connection are unclear all these men had contacts with their fellow country men who were making wines locally and their wine hall operated as an outlet for this local production.

Born in Nobbialo, on the north western shore of Lake Como,Vincent/Vincenzo Fasoli was in his early twenties when he arrived in Victoria in 1864, coincidentally the year the 'Pension Suisse' was established. Why he came to Melbourne is unknown but it is likely he already had some contacts here because he seems to have made his way straight to the Italian community which had established itself around the Jim Crow diggings in the Daylesford area.

In 1868 he marries Bridget White (who is Irish), and they have five children, four daughters Milly (Amelia, 1869), Kate (1870), Mary(1872) and Virginia (Florinda, 1874) and one son, Nicholas (1878), all born in the Daylesford area. Just what Vincent did with himself in Daylesford isn't entirely clear although it appears that he tried his hand at wine making. By1869 V. Fasoli and Co. have taken over an established vineyard at Spring Creek and Fasoli is winning prizes for his red and white wines at the Glenlyon, Franklin and Daylesford Agricultural Show (Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers, 22 March 1869, p. 67, The Australian 3 April 1869 p. 25).

In 1889 Vincent Fasoli applied to become an Australian citizen, urgently requesting his letter of naturalisation 'for the purpose of obtaining a transfer of a Victualler's License'. On his application he lists his occupation as hospital wardsman. According to J. Alex Allan, Fasoli bought the Carriers Arms Hotel in Daylesford in 1893 ('Bohemia in Melbourne', The Argus, 6 August 1932).

1898 sees the Fasolis in Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. Vincent runs Fasoli's until 1905 when he retires and hands over the management to his daughter Katherine, now married to Nerino Maggia, a surveyor from Genoa who had arrived in Australia in 1903.  In 1907 the Maggias move the business to King Street and the original premises are taken over by a Mr. Camuso/Carmoosa and become popularly known as 'Carmuso's' although eventually renamed 'The Ritz'.

Vincent Fasoli dies in 1919 and his wife Bridget in 1926. In 1929 Kate Maggia also dies and the business passes into the hands of Virginia. (Virginia had married Guido Mazzolini, born in Cremona. Guido arrived in Australia in 1899 and died in 1924.) By 1934 the business was in the hands of Guido Maggia, Kate's son, and is sold, ending 36 years of Fasoli's in Melbourne.

My fascination for Fasoli's involves both its role in the Bohemian life of Melbourne and the story of the Fasoli family. Long before we start talking about the influence of post World War Two migration we have a strong, well established Italian community using their skills and knowledge to make a living and introducing their ways of eating and drinking to the broader community around them. In this case bringing the local wine from Daylesford and the sausage produced there, know as bull-boar, to be enjoyed by the artists, poets, journalists, musicians, parliamentarians and professional men of Melbourne. I am intrigued by the figure of Bridget from County Clare serving red wine and spaghetti to her clients and how clearly her daughters, Kate and Virginia, identified with their Italian heritage, presumably a result of their upbringing in the Italian community of Daylesford. For most of the life of Fasoli's it was not run by Vincent but by his daughter Kate, and it was Kate who maintained the novel menu and the Bohemian atmosphere.

In his reminiscences I Recall, Robert Croll (p. 43)  has this to say of Fasoli's -
Many have written of both the old and the new Fasoli's: none, I think, has done justice to the memory of Mrs. Maggia, under whose firm and beneficent rule it prospered for such a number of years. She was a woman who had to play a tactful and often difficult part, and well she did it. She earned respect and liking; at her death I felt the loss of a personal friend.
Here I found a whole new world of sensations. I was delighted. The salads (particularly the potato salad) and the 'shark' (as any fish was named, from sardines upward), or the salami (believed by all to be of horseflesh) which prefaced the more important dishes; the spaghetti with its grated cheese; the general flavour of oil and garlic; the vin ordinaire (it was proper to refer to this, no matter how excellent it might be, as the etching bath), the novel cheeses (here I first met Gruyere and Gorgonzola) and, above all, the flow and sparkle of talk in many languages - these were indeed a change from the monotony of the normal. Even the fact that you must not part from your knife and fork throughout the meal had a charm - the charm of novelty.
It seems to me important that we don't underestimate the charm of novelty and the important role immigrants to this country have played in teaching us about not just the variety of what there is to eat but importantly how to eat.

The information I've put together here about the Fasoli family has been gleaned from newspapers (available through the National Library Trove search engine), from indexes to births and marriages registered in Victoria and from copies of files pertaining to applications for naturalisation available through the National Archives of Australia web site.