By John Newton
A conspicuous absence: James Cook had warned that the new territories produced ‘hardly anything fit for Man to eat’. A curious observation considering he was only here from April 1770 to August, and barely spent anytime on shore.
And especially since Banks, the Swedish botanist Daniel Solander and the Finnish botanist Dr Herman Spöring, also on the voyage, collected a large amount of Australian flora, around 800 specimens of which were illustrated in the Banks Florilegium.
So when the First Fleet set sail on 13 May 1787 and arrived on 26 January 1788, they brought with them abundant food (and livestock), enough to feed a colony.
From England they brought carrots, potatoes, lettuce, asparagus, onions, broccoli, beans, peas, watercress, wheat, barley, rye and oats. Also apples, pears, plums, cherries and a selection of citrus including navels, Seville oranges and Tahitian limes. And in Rio de Janeiro they picked up tamarind, prickly pear plants complete with – and specifically for – the cochineal grubs – the first but not the last botanical blunder, the pear later ran rife and became an environmental problem – coffee, cotton, lemon, orange and guava. In Cape Town, they added rice, maize (then known as Indian corn), apples, bamboo (the second mistake), pears, strawberries, quinces and apples.
But one plant was conspicuously absent. As indeed it was from the normal British and Irish diet, and remained so from the Australian diet for a good 180 years.
Garlic. Allium sativum, otherwise known as the whiffy lily. And its passage from neglect to enthusiastic acceptance tells the story of Australian food like no other ingredient.
That Victorian era ‘authority on cooking and domestic subjects’ Mrs Beeton was not keen on garlic and suspicious of its foreign roots:
The smell of this plant is generally considered offensive and it is the most acrimonious in its taste of the whole of the alliaceous tribe… On the continent, especially in Italy, it is much used and the French consider it an essential in many made dishes.
As late as 1969, when the Café (now Restaurant) Xenos in Crows Nest first opened on Sydney’s lower north shore, ‘if there was a whiff of garlic anywhere near’ the Greek founder Peter Xenos told me, ‘they wouldn’t come in.’
In Convicted Tastes, Richard Beckett quotes a post war migrant woman looking back on her early days in Australia: ‘When we came here there was no garlic and no [olive] oil. If you drank wine you were a plonko, and if you ate garlic you were an outcast.’
‘Rub a clove around the edge of the salad bowl then discard’ were my mother’s instructions to make a salad dressing. And my mother was a pretty progressive cook for her time.
Those who colonised or invaded this country suffered from Alliumphobia, a fear of garlic. This can be charted easily from the 17th Century, in spite of the aristocracy’s fondness for French cuisine. And they exported this condition to Australia. You will search long and hard for garlic in 19th Century and even early 20th century Australian cookbooks (I have).
The history of Australian cooking or cuisine can very easily be broken up into two eras: BG (Before Garlic) and AG (After Garlic). Food from essentially conservative and Anglo-Celtic fare – not always as bad as it has been painted but mostly plain and ‘honest’ – to the brilliant, polyglot, inventive and crazy mixed-up tucker we have today: what I call Mongrel Cuisine.
In Imaginary Homelands Salman Rushdie writes of his book, Satanic Verses, that it:
It rejoices in mongrelisation and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and that, is how newness enters the world… change-by-fusion, change-by-co-joining. It is a love-song to our mongrel selves…Perhaps we are all, black, brown and white, leaking into one another, as a character of mine once said, like flavours when you cook [my emphasis].
This is a fine definition of what the best Australian chefs are doing. Australian food is, as Rushdie writes of his book, ‘a love-song to our mongrel selves’: flavours, ingredients and origins leaking into one another.
Australia AG can be dated from 1972. That is when the Jumbo Jet, the Boeing 747, first landed in Australia. We had a high degree of disposable income. So we took off in our millions. And discovered that Luigi and Costa next door had a thing or two to teach us about eating. And drinking.
When we returned, we began making up for lost time. After 230 years of bland, we wanted flavour. We went from multicultural to multi-culinary. From beer to wine. Whatever our new neighbours cooked and drank, we were up for it.
And now, in the 21st Century, this chain of events – the arrival of the post war migrants, the Jumbo Jet – has resulted in Australia having one of the most innovative high (public) tables on the planet.
John Newton’s latest book, The Getting of Garlic: 230 years of Australian food. From Bland to Brilliant, with recipes old and new is due to be published in October by NewSouth. Join us at the Symposium to see this exciting new work launched.