On 12 February 2018 I spoke to a group from the University of the Third Age, Deepdene. The talk was billed as a decade by decade stroll through 150 years of Australian food history. In an hour or so. Hence, it ended up as more of a gallop.
Today’s talk has been billed as a culinary journey through 150 years of Australian food…the period I’ve covered in my book A Timeline of Australian Food: from mutton to MasterChef.
That’s a big, big subject. Just in my lifetime – and in your lifetimes – we’ve seen so many changes. Who remembers life before pizza? Before espresso coffee? A time when virtually no-one in Australia knew how to use chopsticks? And that’s just in the last six decades or so.
If I tried to cover everything that’s changed in the last 15 decades we’d be here for days. So today I’m going to choose some events from that period that I think have had a significant effect on the way Australians eat…and drink.
My original plan was to start the book at the very beginning of Australia’s food history – with the megafauna – but for commercial reasons we settled on 150 years of the timeline. Counting backwards from Masterchef, that brought me to the 1860s, when the big news was food in cans.
The process for canning was actually invented in the 1790s in France and the first tinned meat was produced in England in 1820, when the instructions for opening the can began…“Cut round on the top near to the outer edge with a chisel and hammer”.*
There were attempts to start canning in Australia in the 1840s and ‘50s, but the 1860s it really took off. Meat was in plentiful supply and there was a ready export market in England so canning companies began popping up around the country. By 1869, manufacturers in Queensland were exporting over one million kilograms of canned beef and mutton each year.
And there was another commodity that was beginning to make its way into cans: rabbits, foolishly introduced in the 1850s so gentlemen could enjoy shooting them, and rapidly spreading through the colonies. Canning rabbit was at least a way to turn the pest into profit.
The rabbit explosion took on a new and very literal meaning in 1878 though, when passengers aboard a ship called the Aconcagua had a less-than-pleasant voyage through the Red Sea. The heat made 20 000 cans of rabbit meat bound for Britain explode and the stench from rotting rabbit meat permeated the ship for many days.
Of course, meat wasn’t the only product to be canned. In 1861, George Peacock began canning fruit and jam in Hobart. Peacock’s operations were later taken over by Henry Jones, whose IXL brand is still with us today.
There were some very exotic canned goods produced in Queensland. An enterprising Englishman, Brainard Skinner, became particularly famous for turtle soup. It was supplied to several governors, sampled by royalty and even endorsed by the Duke of Manchester. Turtle soup was de rigueur on banquet menus well into the 20th century and turtles weren’t in fact protected until 1968. Skinner’s also did a nice line in dugong pate and a range of other products including bêche-de-mer soup, ox-cheek, sheep tongues, pigeons and the mysterious ‘Brighton hunting beef ’.
As well as canned meat, the 1860s also gave us: the Granny Smith apple; the successful introduction of trout to Tasmanian rivers; and the first Australian cook book written by Mr Edward Abbott, which included recipes for roast wombat and kangaroo brains fried in emu fat.
In the early 1870s, a new migrant stepped ashore in Sydney – someone who was to have a significant influence on Australian food. His name was Athanassio Comino and he came from the Greek island of Kythera.
At first, he worked as a miner. Then, one day, he was walking down Sydney’s Oxford Street when hunger drew him to a fish and chip shop operated by an unnamed Welshman. Fish and chips had been a thing in England since around 1860…so it’s no surprise that the idea had already been exported to New South Wales. Anyway, Athanassio thought it looked like a pretty easy way to make a living …so in 1878, started his own Oxford Street shop.
But that led to something much bigger – a chain of migration that led to fish shops, oyster bars and, ultimately, Greek-run cafés throughout Australia’s eastern states. Athanassio was followed by his brother. Then by many members of the Comino family and other people from their island, who migrated to Australia and joined the family business.
The so-called Comino empire quickly expanded throughout New South Wales and Queensland. When Athanassio died in 1897 his brother John took over and became known as the “Oyster King”, at a time when oysters were not a luxury item but every man’s cheap ‘food to go’.
There’s a family story, though, that the transition to oysters wasn’t entirely smooth. They knew about fish…from their origins in a Greek fishing village. But they didn’t know much about oysters. It’s said that when the brothers first tried to sell deep fried oysters dipped in batter, they battered them shell and all – to the bafflement of their customers.
And later on another Greek consortium formed the Anglo-American Company, opening American-style soda fountains in Sydney. Later still, Joachim Tavlaridis – who changed his name to Mick Adams – is credited with opening Australia’s first milk bar – the Black & White 4d Milk Bar – in Martin Place Sydney.
Greek cafés became social hubs for many a country town or city suburb through the first half of the 20th century. Of course, they didn’t serve Greek food; the signature dish was likely to be a mixed grill. And even in my youth, in the 1950s and ‘60s, the local fish and chip shop was likely to be run by a Greek family.
So what else cropped up on our food landscape in the 1870s? William Arnott started making biscuits; the first gas stoves arrived in Australia; and Chinese workers from the Queensland goldfields started our first banana plantations.
The 1880s was remarkable for the introduction of something close to the hearts of Australians ever since. Lager beer, including the beer most identified with Australia – Foster’s. This was made possible by an earlier Australian invention: refrigeration.
Until the 1850s, ice had been brought to Australia by sailing ships. Its origins were frozen lakes in North America or Norway, where ice was harvested and shipped around the world so those wealthy enough to be able to install an ice house could enjoy their cold drinks.
Then, in 1851, a Geelong engineer called James Harrison invented an ice-making machine – the world’s first vapour-compression refrigeration system – using ether as the refrigerant. In 1854 it began operation commercially and he received a patent for it in 1855. Harrison’s first customer was a brewery in Bendigo.
But it was nearly 20 years later that another Bendigo brewery made the first lager. Lager beer can’t be brewed without cold – which is why early colonial ales were warm, dark and flat like British beers. The lager style came from Europe…specifically Germany… where the climate was considerably colder than ours. But having a supply of ice readily available changed everything.
The first lager to be made was not Foster’s, but a now-forgotten beer known as Excelsior Lager, made by Cohn Brothers of Bendigo. Their machinery was an improvement on Harrison’s invention and was imported from Germany in 1882. Six years later, another set of brothers arrived from America. These were the Fosters, and it was their beer, first sold in 1889, that eventually became Australia’s most famous export.
Lager beers quickly became popular and many of them were given German-sounding names – something that changed during World War 1 when Carlton and United stopped making Bismarck, Rheingold and Strasburg lagers and advertised Foster’s as ‘not manufactured or sold by Germans’ but ‘manufactured and controlled purely by British people’.
What else happened in the 1880s? Macpherson Robertson began making his MacRobertson’s confectionery. The first macadamia plantations were set up in Queensland. And the Chaffey Brothers began their irrigation scheme at Mildura on the Murray.
I’ve chosen our 1890s story not because of its significance to Australia as a whole, but because it’s a uniquely Australian –or should I say South Australian – invention. The pie floater. Here’s a little movie about it.
The culinary heritage of the pie floater probably comes from northern England where pea and pie suppers are a traditional form of entertainment. The term ‘floater’ is also used in parts of England, where dumplings for soup are described as floaters or sinkers. We don’t know exactly how this term came to be applied to the pie and soup combination, but legend has it that the pie floater was invented by a baker called Ern Bradley, popularly known as ‘Shorty Bradley’, in Port Pirie, South Australia in the 1890s.
The history of the pie floater is very much tied up with South Australia’s pie carts. In 1900 there were 13 pie carts operating in Adelaide but thanks to the Adelaide City Council they’ve all disappeared. The last pie cart was closed in 2010, but the pie floater is available through bakeries, including several 24-hour establishments, so late-night revellers can get their floater fix.
In 2003, the South Australian National Trust recognised the pie floater as a South Australian Heritage Icon.
Elsewhere in Australia the 1890s saw: the founding of Leggo’s (not by an Italian, by the way, as the name Leggo is as Cornish as my maiden name of Trezise); the founding of Rosella; and the invention of the Coolgardie safe on the Western Australian goldfields.
Also on those goldfields, in the 1900s, an engineer came up with another significant invention: the first electric stove. It was invented by a Scottish-born engineer, David Curle Smith. He had sought his fortune on the Western Australian goldfields but found, in his own words, ‘that fortunes did not grow upon every bush’. Then the Kalgoorlie Council offered him the job of electrifying the town.
Kalgoorlie at the time had no electricity, no gas and relied on kerosene for lighting, but Curle Smith supervised the building of the power plant and infrastructure. He then noticed that while demand for electricity at night was high there was spare capacity during the day. If he could encourage people to use that capacity, at one and sixpence per unit, it would mean more money in the municipal coffers.
So in 1905 he patented the design for a stove with an oven, a hotplate on top and a grill tray in between – a design that for many years became the standard format for an upright cooker. It was a world first. It didn’t have a thermostat though, so you had to regulate the temperature by turning elements on and off.
The stoves were owned by the Kalgoorlie Municipality and hired out to Kalgoorlie residents for two shillings a month, making electrical cooking available to the average person for the first time.
Curle Smith’s wife helped to promote his cooker by developing a recipe book with the catchy title of Thermo-Electrical Cooking Made Easy: Proved Recipes for Guidance in the Use of the Rational Electric Cooking Stove (D. Curle Smith’s Patent). The book had 161 recipes, including magpie pudding, curried mutton and boiled brisket.
Sadly, only about 50 of the stoves were produced and they’ve all vanished. Some other 1900s inventions are still with us though. The 1900s was also the decade that gave us the Lamington, the Neenish tart, the Sao biscuit and Peters Ice Cream, accepted for many years as ‘the health food of a nation’.
In the following decade, the world went to war. And the first World War had a long-lasting effect on Australia’s dining habits. It wasn’t down to rationing because, although there were some shortages and people were urged to be ‘patriotic, morally upright and thrifty’, generally food was plentiful. It was because the war provided a unique opportunity for the temperance movement.
Organisations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had been campaigning against alcohol for decades. Back in the 1870s and 80s, the temperance movement had led to the erection of grand ‘coffee palaces’ – hotels where no alcohol was served. The temperance advocates campaigned against the service of alcohol in railway refreshment rooms and even advocated total prohibition.
With Australia at war, they saw their opportunity. They argued that Australians needed to ‘throw off superfluous drink and get down to the solid fighting habits of the soldier here and now’. And they succeeded, at least in part.
Until 1916, pubs throughout Australia stayed open until 11 or 11.30 at night and restaurants were known to serve drinks into the small hours. In March of that year, South Australians voted in favour of a six o’clock closing time for public houses and by the end of the year Tasmania, New South Wales and Victoria had followed suit. Western Australia settled for more civilised hour of 9 o’clock but Queensland retained the old trading hours until 1923, when they opted for 8 o’clock.
Not only did early closing lead to the infamous “six o’clock swill” in pubs, it affected restaurants as well. Having a glass of wine with your dinner in a restaurant became well-nigh impossible in Victoria until the 1960s, when licensing laws were reviewed.
Other developments in the 1910s were more positive. Joseph Fowler began selling his Fowlers Vacola bottling system; GJ Coles opened his first store in Collingwood; and the Anzac biscuit was invented, although it seems the recipe wasn’t published until 1920.
Now this cheery chap was, despite his looks, quite a mover and shaker in the 1920s. His name is Harold Winthrop Clapp, later Sir Harold Winthrop Clapp, and in 1920 he became Chairman of the Victorian Railways.
He was a very hands-on Chairman and as well as making technical reforms like extending the network and speeding up electrification he put a lot of focus on food. From the earliest days of railway refreshment rooms, catering standards were, at best, variable. Harold decided to change that. He established the Refreshment Branch and took control of all catering on stations and trains. Soon the branch had its own butchery, bakery, laundry and poultry farm.
Clapp’s view was that helping farmers would increase the railway’s freight business, so he worked with the Department of Agriculture to commission a Better Farming Train that toured Victoria in the mid-1920s to demonstrate farming best practice. But Harold’s particular interest was in shipping fruit.
So he started to promote it. He introduced fruit kiosks on stations and nearly 100 years ahead of Boost started Australia’s first fresh fruit juice bar at Flinders Street Station. Five years later there were 27 such stalls on stations throughout Victoria. It became the biggest outlet for the state’s citrus growers.
Harold fancied himself as a bit of a copywriter and personally devised slogans…like “Citrus fruit is nature’s way To keep you fit for work and play” and “Everyday in Everyway…RAISINS”.
He had a thing about raisin bread, to the delight of the Australian Dried Fruits Association. The railways’ own bakery began churning out loaves by the thousands and by 1925, they were selling 20 000 loaves of raisin bread a month. These were ‘hygienically wrapped’, the first wrapped bread to be sold in Victoria. Other bakers saw how successful this was as began making raisin bread too…and a new favourite dish was born.
As well as our first juice bars, the 1920s also gave us a wealth of new goodies like Kraft Cheddar, Passiona, Vegemite, WeetBix, and our first domestic refrigerators.
The roaring 20s with its cocktails, flappers and fast cars, had come to an abrupt end in October 1929 when the New York stock market crashed, sending the world into the Great Depression of the early 1930s. By 1932, one in three Australian breadwinners was unemployed.
Those who still had a home and a back garden were the lucky ones. They could grow their own vegetables or raise chooks. Some were reduced to stealing vegetables from other people’s gardens, a practice known as bandicooting. Housewives bought stale bread, ‘cheap cuts’ of meat, bruised fruit and vegetables and broken biscuits that would otherwise have gone to waste.
People took to fishing and hunting rabbits, and long after the Depression passed many people refused to eat ‘underground mutton’ because it was so strongly associated with the lean years. In the cities, especially, many were dependent on sustenance, ‘the susso’, which often came in the form of ration vouchers.
When someone asked ‘what’s for dinner?’ the answer was likely to be “bread and duck under the table”. Families queued up at soup kitchens and subsisted on bread and dripping, or bread and “cocky’s joy” (golden syrup). Babies were fed on diluted condensed milk and Arrowroot Biscuits. Swagmen were entitled to receive food-ration coupons at country police stations if they could produce a traveller’s ration card that showed they’d travelled at least 50 miles during the week – a measure designed to stop them forming “hobo’s camps”.
It took the rest of the decade for the economy to recover.
Strangely, despite the general hardship, it was in the 1930s that more Chinese restaurants began to pop up in country towns. There was more awareness of China when Japan invaded the country in 1931 and in 1934 the White Australia laws were changed allowing restaurants to bring cooks from China for limited periods.
During the ‘30s and ‘40s, almost every country town acquired a Chinese restaurant, but, like the Greek cafés, they typically offered European dishes like steak and eggs. However, this was the time when Australians got their first taste of sweet and sour pork and chop suey.
The 1930s were also when we had our first taste of Freddo Frogs, Jaffas, Pavlova, Brandivino – and that party favourite, Chocolate Crackles.
By the end of the 1930s, Australia was again at war. In the 1940s, this had both short and long term effects on the way we ate. This time, there was food rationing – and the first thing to be rationed, in 1942 was tea. At that time Australia’s tea consumption was second only to that of Britain and 10 cups a day was not unusual.
The ration of half a pound per adult every five weeks just wasn’t enough. People re-used tea-leaves or boiled them up to make ‘tea essence’. Papers across Australia published a Housewives’ Association recipe for making a tea substitute out of wheat: … put 1lb of wheat with 2 tablespoons of sugar and 2 teaspoons of salt into a baking dish and brown in the oven. The resulting mixture was then brewed like tea, and was ‘found very good, although it had a malty flavour’.
Soon meat was rationed, along with butter and sugar, and lots of hints appeared about making rations go further. Breweries were compelled to reduce their output so pubs could only serve beer between certain hours…and often ran out. Rationing persisted until 1950, with the tea the last one to go.
While rationing was a short-term effect, World War II also affected how we ate in more permanent ways. By 1943, there were 250,000 American servicemen stationed in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. To many Aussies they represented modernity and glamour. And they ate differently – more vegetables and salads, more fruits, coffee rather than tea. When they went home at the end of the war, they left us with an increasing appetite for hamburgers and hotdogs, doughnuts and coca cola – and pineapple.
For two decades, pineapple became THE glamour ingredient, a trend that was well catered for by Golden Circle, who opened their cannery in 1947. There was sliced pineapple, crushed pineapple, pineapple pieces, tropical fruit salad, pineapple juice…and the Women’s Weekly featured untold recipes for sweet and savoury dishes including the tropical fruit.
But perhaps the most long-lasting effect World War II had on our diets was the influx of immigrants from a devastated Europe. Between 1945 and 1965 more than two million migrants came to Australia, mostly with government assistance. Migrants from non-British countries were horrified by the food they found in the migrant camps and as soon as they could sought out their own communities, especially in our major cities.
The Snowy Mountains Scheme, which started in 1949, employed many migrant workers – Italians, Germans, Yugoslavs, Americans, Irish, Greeks, Poles, and Russians. It was inevitable that before long Australians would be drinking espressos and eating spaghetti, schnitzel, goulash and souvlakis.
But many innovations we remember from the 1940s are a bit less exotic and include: Nescafe; the Jaffle; Wizz Fizz; that essential for making pavlovas, the Mixmaster; and that great Australian invention, the Splayd.
Now let’s get back to drinking. The next event that changed Australians’ habits in a significant way was this: Barossa Pearl. We’d turn up our noses at it today, but when this sweetish sparkling wine was launched in 1956 it began a revolution in the way we drank.
Australian wines had been winning awards overseas since 1822, when Gregory Blaxland – better known as part of the group that crossed the Blue Mountains – sent some of his wine to London where it won a silver medal. And Australian wines continued to win medals in the great European exhibitions from the 1870s through to the early 1900s.
Despite this, table wine never became a popular drink. Even in the 1950s, most Australians drank beer or spirits and 80 per cent of the wine that was sold was fortified – mostly port and sherry or weird cocktail mixes..
Then Colin Gramp of Orlando wanted to change that. He thought a light, sparkling, non-challenging wine – based on a German style known as Perlwein – would appeal to young people. It did. The intention was to launch Barossa Pearl in time for the Melbourne Olympic Games. The actual launch day was 5 November 1956.
While the rest of the industry watched with some scepticism, Barossa Pearl became a huge success. Competitors eventually followed with more sparkling, sweetish wines: do you remember Sparkling Rinegolde, Starwine, Gala Spumante and Porphyry Pearl – and its stable mates Cheri Pearl and Pineapple Pearl – perhaps a low point in our wine-making history?
Although wine snobs probably looked down their noses at these wines, Orlando went on to sell around 27 million bottles of Barossa Pearl. I remember it being served at our house, along with the special occasion roast chicken, for birthday dinners – the first wine that ever graced our table.
Barossa Pearl was a party drink. From there it was but a short leap to Mateus Rosé and Blue Nun, and when the wine cask was invented in the 1960s Australia was well on its way to being a wine-drinking nation.
What else was new in the 1950s? The Chiko Roll, invented in Bendigo, made its debut at the Wagga show. The first Spaghetti Bolognese recipe appeared in the Women’s Weekly, although it strangely included Worcetershire sauce. The first Meals on Wheels service started in South Melbourne. And, of course, the iconic Esky arrived.
For decades, including right through the 1950s, most grocery stores used to look like this.
My grandfather ran one in Caulfield and I remember him pulling down the box of Chocolate Royals to give me a special treat.
Self-service had started to creep in. The world’s first self-service store opened in America in 1916 with the unlikely name of Piggly Wiggly and Australia’s first, Brisbane Cash and Carry or BCC, opened in 1923.
But it was during the 1960s that everything changed. Suddenly we had a New World of shopping, thanks to Coles and Woolworths. Both of them opened their first freestanding supermarkets in 1960: Coles in North Balwyn, not far from here, and Woolworths in Warrawong, a suburb of Wollongong in New South Wales. They were soon joined by Franklins, who opened 70 supermarkets in the 1960s. And, in Victoria, the American Safeway chain.
What made supermarkets possible, even essential, was the advent of Australian-made, affordable cars. Now, instead of walking round the corner with our shopping baskets, we could drive to the shops and take home a boot-load of groceries all at once. So parking became mecessary. And of course, by the 1960s, nearly everyone had a fridge, with a freezer compartment, so we could shop weekly and keep all that food fresh until we needed it.
By the end of the 1960s, 70 per cent of grocers in Melbourne were self-service and 50 per cent of Australian grocery sales were going through the major chains. My uncle, who had taken over grandpa’s shop by then, joined a buying group called Four Square and converted his shop to self-service in an attempt to compete with the big guys, but he was just too small to make it viable and ended up closing the business, selling the freehold and going to work for Myer.
The rise of supermarkets was accompanied by an explosion in the range of packaged foods available and since television had arrived in 1956 food manufacturers had the perfect medium to announce their new products.
Of course, the choice back then wasn’t anywhere near as great as it is now. For instance, the milk options then were fresh, powdered, evaporated or condensed. Today, your average supermarket has well over a hundred different milk lines, including coconut, almond, soy, rice and oat milk as well as skim, reduced fat, A2, organic, lactose free, high protein, heart active and long life milk that actually comes from cows.
What else changed our lives in the 1960s? Tim Tams arrived, as did Tupperware. Toto’s in Carlton introduced us to pizza, and we celebrated the end of 6 o’clock closing and the introduction of the BYO. At last you could have a legal glass of wine with your restaurant meal.
The big story of the 1970s actually started at the end of the ‘60s. Fast food – American style.
First into the fray was the Colonel, with his Kentucky Fried Chicken. The first store opened in Guildford in Sydney’s western suburbs with a staff of 25. It was opened by a Canadian named Bob Lapointe and started the fast-food revolution in Australia. With ‘Finger lickin’ good’ chicken and virtually instant service it was a huge success. By January 1970, when ‘Colonel’ Harland Sanders visited Australia, there were 38 stores and they were opening at the rate of one a week.
The other American chains weren’t far behind. Pizza Hut was next, in 1970, although that first store is now a Korean restaurant. Then, in 1971, McDonald’s opened its first store in Sydney, while Hungry Jack’s made its Australian entry in Perth.
Hungry Jack’s should, by rights, have been Burger King. Except that a canny Adelaide operator had opened some drive-in restaurants years earlier and registered the Burger King name for Australia. So the American chain had to settle for a different name.
Much later, Hungry Jack’s has the distinction of being named by Choice as having the unhealthiest item of fast food available, with the Ultimate Double Whopper having a giant 4773 kilojoules – that’s more than 1140 calories in the old measure – nearly as much as four Four ‘n Twenty Pies and almost half the daily calorie allowance for an adult male.
Red Rooster, the only Australian of the bunch, had its origins in Western Australia in 1972 and Domino’s introduced us to home-delivered pizza when it opened in Queensland in 1982. By 2011, we had 1250 Subways, 845 Domino’s, 780 McDonald’s and 300 Hungry Jacks, with 600 KFCs here and in New Zealand. And by last year there were a total of 29,432 fast food outlets, comprising more than a third of the restaurants in Australia.
There’s no going back, is there? Perhaps it’s reassuring that we’re visiting these chains slightly less than we used to – but according to market research our grandchildren are still big fans.
What else do remember the ‘70s for? Well, it was the era of the quiche and the fondue, and it also gave us the first low fat milk, muesli bars, and the Golden Gaytime.
Well, we’re getting up to recent history now, so rather than rabbit on about stuff you probably all know about I’m going to look at an Australian invention that has gone on to world-wide fame. The flat white coffee. The story really goes back to the beginnings of espresso culture…and many would argue that Australia has the oldest espresso culture after Italy. It’s a story not without controversy. On my website, I’d written that the first Australian espresso machine was actually installed by the Andronicus brothers in Sydney in 1948, but I received an indignant email protesting that I’d got it wrong.
It was from a grandson of the founder of Café Florentino…and this is what he wrote:
The first commercial expresso machine was installed in the Cafe Florentino, Burke Street Melbourne by my grandfather Rinaldo Massoni in 1928. Patrons were delighted as this large machine hissed, plumed, gushed streams of aromatic coffee and promptly drank copious amounts of this delicious liquid. Any other claim in this regard is pure southern matter dropped from a north bound bull.
However, the machine Massoni installed wasn’t the machine we know today. I soon heard from another passionate coffee aficionado, who claimed that all machines prior to 1948 produced bad tasting coffee, because they pushed steam through the grounds. 1948 is the true start of espresso, he wrote. The Gaggia machine, invented in 1948, pushed heated water through the coffee, producing the espresso we know today.
So, by the early 1950s, we had espresso coffee. The flat white took longer to arrive. The same guy who educated me about the espresso machine also claims to be the one who invented – perhaps not the drink, but at least the term ‘flat white’. His name is Alan Preston, and he ran a series of cafés in Sydney in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Alan hails from North Queensland where the descendants of rich Italian cane growers had opened cafés to cater for the local Italian community – and according to him espresso culture in that area was stronger than that in southern cities. With true North Queensland parochialism, he said: Sydney and Melbourne Italians and Greeks always crap on about how they own coffee but it was their North Queensland cousins who had the cash back in the day.
The typical North Queensland coffee menu, he says, offered these options: black coffee (long or short) and white coffee (cappuccino, flat or Vienna).When Alan opened his first café in Sydney, called Moors it seemed natural to do what had already been done with Long Black and Short Black, so he abbreviated North Queensland’s ‘White Coffee – Flat’ to simply Flat White.
There’s still controversy about this, with New Zealand also getting into the act – as if they’re not content with claiming pavlova and Anzac biscuits. But the earliest mention of the term in New Zealand is in Wellington in 1989 and Alan Preston has the photographic evidence to support his 1985 claim.
The flat white has since been exported around the world, even appearing on the Starbucks menu in the United States in 2015 where it’s described as “steamed whole milk poured over two shots of concentrated espresso and topped with “microfoam.” Just don’t try to order one in Italy.
What else can we thank the 1980s for? Apart from the sun dried tomato, the decade gave us the first Age Good Food Guide, the Women’s Weekly Birthday Cake Book, Yoplait yogurt and the Heart Foundation tick.
The 1990s was probably the decade when we gained confidence in our own cuisine. In 1996, the term “Modern Australian” first appeared in the Good Food Guides. It replaced “International Cuisine” and “Individual” and incorporated the idea of “fusion” food that combined European and Asian influences.
This reflected our changing society. Post World War II immigration was almost exclusively British and European, thanks to the infamous White Australia Policy. Although this policy was eased somewhat during the 1950s and ‘60s, it wasn’t until 1973 that Gough Whitlam’s Labor government abolished the last vestiges of it. Our increasingly multicultural society included people from China, Vietnam and other Asian countries – a diversity that, over the years, was reflected in our cuisine.
Chefs like Adelaide’s Cheong Liew and Sydney’s Tetsuya Wakuda combined cuisines with a deft touch, but lesser mortals often produced ‘confusion cuisine’. At its best, fusion cooking was inspiring. At its worst, it was scary.
Perhaps here in Australia fusion food never reached the depths of Szechwan shrimp Alfredo. This dish was mentioned by a writer called Sylvia Lovegren in her book titled Fashionable Foods: Seven Decades of Food Fads. This extraordinary dish consisted of fettucine with Alfredo sauce, which contains butter, cream, garlic and parsley. But wait, there’s more. It was mixed with prawns, broccoli, water chestnuts, mushrooms, ginger, sun-dried tomatoes… and Hoisin sauce.
I’m not making this up. Yes, it was in America. But a more poignant example of the dangers of fusion food can scarcely be imagined. And for every chef who combined Eastern and Western flavours well there was probably another who failed miserably.
The 1990s also marked the arrival of one of the most popular biscuits of all time: Tiny Teddies. They were launched in 1990 and more than five million were sold in less than a month.
But their reputation was somewhat sullied 20 years later when a police drug bust in Geelong, Victoria, uncovered packs of Tiny Teddies impregnated with LSD. The police arrested 15 people after swooping on 13 homes across Geelong, the Surf Coast and Werribee, seizing drugs, guns, knives and cars. A 19-year-old was arrested after police found a large quantity of LSD, including Tiny Teddies biscuits coated with the drug, inside his Nissan Skyline. Don’t tell the children.
The 1990s also saw the organic movement gaining momentum and gave us FlyBuys, Sunday shopping, Jamie…and that font of all wisdom (and recipes), Google.
As so to the 2000s…otherwise known as the noughties. The decade when Boost Juice started a craze for wheatgrass and smoothies, Aldi arrived to take on Coles and Woollies, and everyone was serving tapas (including Japanese restaurants).
We had the cupcake craze, the macaron craze, and the decade ended, as we all know, with Masterchef.
Since the noughties are very recent history indeed, I’m not going to talk any more about them. Instead, I’m going to show you a little movie about what I’ve dubbed midwinter magic – an ingredient that first appeared at the very end of the ‘90s and began to make an impact in the 2000s: Australian grown truffles.