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.