|This article was first published in the food and wine issue (Caroline Mead, ed.) of "The Australian Magazine" July 8-9, 2000, pp.26 and 30. Reprinted with the kind authorisation of "The Australian Magazine"|
|Is there such a thing as Australian cuisine?
Only if we take the best of the rest of the world and combine it with local ingredients - including our wines.
One of the great wonders of travel is the diversity of cuisines and the beverages that accompany them. It is now quite possible to travel anywhere on the planet and consume a hamburger and Coke and, frankly, if you're in a deprived area this may be the best meal available. Let us assume, however, that for the purpose of this reflection we are on a grand tour untroubled by famine and apocalypse.
Join me for a moment in a small restaurant in Archangel for lunch. Archangel is situated in northern Russia, on the White Sea beyond St. Petersburg. On the menu will be soups of root vegetables, salted and marinated fish, boiled meats with horseradish sauce, perhaps served with fresh or fermented cabbage, and desserts made from curds, eggs and preserved fruits. The food will be served with a bottle of vodka and tea. Much of the food is salty and you will notice the absence of acidic flavours, with the exception of pickled vegetables. You may also notice that the prime seasoning ingredients are suited to the imbibing of tea and vodka, and the thought of a glass of wine to accompany the food would be totally out of place. Might as well go and eat the hamburger with Coke!
Fly with me then to the East, stopping to eat in Manchuria, Korea, northern Japan, Alaska and the Canadian northern territories, continuing on to Scotland, Sweden and back home to Archangel. As we return to our Zakuski and vodka, we would surely reflect on the similarities of the flavours and foods we had enjoyed. The drinks -- sake, vodka, whisky, schnapps, the teas and beers -- are distinct to individual cultures but also very similar in flavour profiles. The reason is both climatological and economic. Foods are salted and pickled to provide sustenance for the winter and also for trade purposes.
Alcoholic beverages peculiar to each region are made from whatever carbohydrates are produced in sufficient quantity to allow them to be used for fermentation and distilling. For example, barley grown in the cold, moist conditions of northern Europe and North America lends itself to beer and whisky production, and the potatoes of colder climes are perfect for vodka.
I believe that food flavours harmonise with drinks, not only because of climatological factors but also because the non-essential seasonings chosen to provide variety in the local diet are always in harmony with the beverages.
The culinary travel experience would have been very different had we journeyed south, with the first big cultural change occurring at the 50o latitude. The first vineyards capable of producing wine in commercial quantities are in central Germany. Wine is drunk as a staple part of the diet in surrounding areas and we notice for the first time a difference in the taste of the food. The boiled meat with cabbage is not cooked with a water base but with wine. The taste structure changes because instead of the acid flavours being harsh and vinegary, they are more gentle and fruity and for the first time we are invited to drink wine with the food as an integral part of the experience.
The further south we travel, the more the differences become apparent. We pass through the temperate and Mediterranean regions until we arrive at the subtropical areas (30o latitude) where grape growing is no longer economically driven. Here, drinks tend to be sweet or bitter. Fruit or coconut juices, spirits and the ubiquitous beer become the chosen beverages. The cuisines are highly spiced, often with exaggerated sweet or sour salt flavours. Chilli is also used as an essential ingredient.
These changes occur gradually, although the cultural enclaves that have formed in Europe over the centuries give the lie to this generalisation. For example, Alsace and Champagne are but a mere crachat apart, but the cuisines are very different.
Colonisation altered these naturally evolved patterns of food culture. The invaders brought their food along with their political and economic cultures, which is what occurred in Australia. In fact, the first English settlers in Sydney nearly starved waiting to be resupplied by the Second Fleet, their inability to adapt to unfamiliar foods thought to be a typically English trait. Indeed, had the French explorer La Pérouse beaten Captain Arthur Phillip's First Fleet into Botany Bay in 1788, not only would today's republican debate have never occurred but the development of Australian cuisine would be more advanced and distinctive than it is. La Pérouse missed his date with destiny by a mere five days.
The French didn't have the squeamish culinary attitude of the English; they were far more curious and inventive. Their consumption of animals such as the fruit bats of New Caledonia is but one example of their enthusiastic embrace of unfamiliar foods. I wonder how the English would have survived the siege of Paris, when that city's chefs invented dishes using exotic animals from the zoo (and the sewers) to adorn their menus?
The imposition of English culture on the Australian landscape precluded the use of native animals as a part of the diet, a taboo that has led to irreparable damage to our soils. It also dictated the flavour structure of our cooking because it was based on a northern European model which utilised very little acid. Settlers were used to the beer and spirit flavours that are so typical of English cooking. These same flavour structures are also typical of Cantonese cooking, which became the most popular exotic cuisine in Australia.
Of all the dishes that most typify good domestic Anglo-cuisine in Australia, the roast dinner is a favourite. In times of celebration the roast may be accompanied by three or four different baked root vegetables and an assortment of legumes, cauliflower and tomatoes. The unifying factor is the gravy, a sauce that fuses the caramelised juices of the meat and the cooking water of the vegetables to create a delicious and harmonious whole out of a collection of disparate flavours. And not bad with a bottle of claret, either. Or should I say cabernet, or merlot, petit verdot or cabernet franc?
It was the upper-class Englishman's love of claret that led to the creation of the Australian wine industry and the branding of wines under the now outlawed French regional labels. I sometimes wonder, considering the success of our wines in international markets, if the French regret having insisted on the changes in nomenclature. We make horrible white burgundy, for example, but great chardonnay.
By the 1830s, the Macarthur, Wentworth and Blaxland families all produced wine from vineyards near Parramatta. In 1928, Blaxland won a gold medal in London for his wine. He put the improvement over his silver medal winner of 1822 down to the maturity of his vines.
In 1831, an enterprising young horticulturist named James Busby returned from the great vineyards of Europe to Australia with a collection of cuttings that formed the genetic patronage of our vineyards. In 1870, when Anthony Trollope visited Australia, he noted the quality of Victorian wine but also expressed a dislike for the wines of South Australia, finding them too "heady, having a taste of earth and a disagreeable aftertaste".
The local wine industry enjoyed a varied career during its first century and was better known for low-quality, high-alcohol plonk than fine table wines. Oliver Mayo (The Wines of Australia, Faber & Faber, 1986) writes that the lack of development of a "love of wine and food" was largely responsible for the slow progress in the Australian fine wine industry. Postwar developments hastened the success of today's wine industry. An essential part of that progress was the incorporation of wine and food as a central part of Australian culture. No longer does it languish on its periphery.
The almost linear progressions of European styles of cooking by geographical location have been rendered obsolete by new food and transport technologies. Seasonal cooking with local produce is no longer a necessity, nor is our society the Anglocentric Australia so beloved of our prime minsters. Instead, we live in an age where a chef's inspiration owes more to chaos theory than any gastronomic logic. Migrations of different cultures from Europe and Asia mean that in the USA and Australia there is no one cohesive "cuisine", much less one that changes with climate. Rather, we embrace a series of ethnic cuisines, elements of which may be chosen and mixed into various "fusion cuisines".
In Australia, wine has become a common cultural factor. This is not the case in the USA where wine culture remains largely the province of the privileged.
Great cooking is for me distinguished by a chef recognising cultural elements, choosing the local, seasonal products he or she admires and then creating a dish that is cohesive. At its highest level, it is harmonious celebration of being alive.
A casual visitor will have no problem distinguishing different styles of cooking when visiting Australia's capital cities. The north is dominated by southern Asian influences, Sydney and Adelaide embrace Mediterranean influences and Melbourne boasts a peculiarly individualistic style, dominated more by cultural influences than climate.
Within that generalisation, there are the following anomalies: Melbourne's most acclaimed restaurant is Cantonese (The Flower Drum); Adelaide's finest chef, Cheong Lieuw, is Cantonese and his cooking blends Japanese and French influences; Sydney's Liam Tomlin (Banc) is Irish and favours French influences, while Janni Kyritsis (of Sydney's MG Garage) celebrates his Greek heritage while exhibiting a great love of contemporary French cooking.
Western Australia's finest restaurant is The Loose Box, which again espouses classic French Mediterranean influences. Chef Alain Fabregues has his own herb and vegetable garden, inspired no doubt by famous French chefs Michel Guerard and Alain Chapel. My own kitchen, Ampersand (Sydney), relies on French/Japanese influences and looks to the inheritors of the traditions of the French Modernists for inspiration.
Australian chefs are not impressed by the Charlie Trotters (Chicago celebrity chef) of the world, merely bemused by their wealth and success in a larger market. That said, our good restaurants all have a strong sense of locality and are devoted to wine as an essential ingredient in the experience they offer. A great cuisine exhibits those same qualities - it is essentially a celebration of the locality and its available produce. Consistency is achieved by the combination of locally seasonal or preserved foods, and the wines or local drinks served with that food.
It is simply not reasonable to expect countries like Australia to produce a "cuisine" in a land that spans 40o of latitude and is home to more nationalities than the French have cheeses. In fact we have too much latitude, climatologically and sociologically, to be able to pull it off. Let us simply aspire to making good food and wine a normal part of being Australian.