Monday, May 04, 2009

Flavours of Melbourne, by Charmaine O'Brien

Flavours of Melbourne is a thoroughly engaging ‘culinary biography’ of Melbourne that I read faster than I thought I would. Charmaine O’Brien takes us from the original Aboriginal diet of the indigenous population, through the years of the gold rush, through two wars and depression, and right up to today’s post 50s immigration food scene.

The book has lots of anecdotes and interesting stories that will keep you turning the pages with interest, especially if, like me, you’re from Melbourne.

What is the story of food in Melbourne? For the Aborigines, it was the lean meats of local animals like possums and kangaroos, mixed with a good variety of native fruit and vegetables. When whites first encountered Melbourne’s Aborigines, they were noted to be of a slightly taller height, to be endowed with strong physiques, and most interesting of all, to have good, strong, healthy white teeth. While indigenous peoples could happily live on what the earth provided, there were lean months when food wasn’t abundant, and hunger pangs had to be endured until nature would provide again.

Then came white settlement, and a diet loaded with meat, sugar, tea and flour. It wasn’t all as bad as that sounds, and there was more interesting cuisine, notably French, to be found.

Come the turn of the century there were more ‘continental’ restaurants that opened in Melbourne, but only the city’s bohemians or more adventurous would be seen dead trying this type of food.

It should also be noted that the gold rush brought the Chinese, who would introduce their own food. Being Asian, they endured much racism, and white Australians would not eat Chinese until much later in the twentieth century.

Post war immigration saw an influx of Italians and other refugees from war. It is this aspect of Melbourne’s culinary culture that most are aware of and at home with today. Even in my suburban youth, everyone knew you headed out to Carlton for pizza.

Today of course it’s even better, with Middle-Eastern, African and Vietnamese restaurants everywhere.

This is a fun and fascinating book about what Melburnians have eaten over the past 150 years, and beyond. O’Brien also includes many recipes at the end of each chapter. Plus there is a useful restaurant and shop guide at the end.

Highly recommended!

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