Thursday, June 23, 2011

200 Years of Australian cooking

The other day, I was browsing through our local second-hand bookshop--a favourite haunt of mine!--and came across a book that I remembered well from childhood: 200 Years of Australian Cooking, or the Captain Cook Book, by Babette Hayes. My parents, who are interested in the food of all the places they have lived and had been dismayed by the fact they couldn't find a book about 'genuine' Australian cooking, had bought it in 1970 when it first came out(to mark the Captain Cook bicentenary no doubt) and I remember my dad trying out various recipes in it. I remember too how pleased they were to see that the author was of French origin herself, but brought up in Syria. As to myself, as a kid I enjoyed looking at the pictures and reading the bits and pieces of history and anecdote in the book and so it was with great pleasure that I found it in the bookshop, bought it and took it home to enjoy once again.

It is a most informative and entertaining book in many ways, with chapters on native ingredients and gold rush gourmets, survival food and bush food and food for the 'upper crust' fit for the Governor's table, and all kinds of migrant influences from Chinese to French to Eastern European to Mediterranean. As well as lots of interesting little potted social histories and anecdotes, there's lots of recipes, everything from oxcheek soup to stewed pigeons, damper to coq au vin, how to barbecue a whole pig to how to pickle mushrooms and lots more in between and beyond. It's also, as I mentioned earlier, got lots of illustrations, from 19th century drawings to lavish recreations of suich settings as an upper crust dining room, a bush settler's cottage, etc. At times, there are reminders of the relative unsophistication of the general Australian market at which the book was aimed, compared to now. But it's also got an eccentric charm all of its own--this isn't your standard cookbook but something rather similar to Dumas' cooking encyclopedia, complete with remarks such as 'What would Captain Cook have thought about it all?' or 'When a man is ravenous, mutton and damper can taste like manna.'

This is a book that really deserves to be rediscovered and enjoyed by a whole new generation. Babette Hayes is still living and working in Australia, though she concentrates on design these days. Her website is at

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