Thursday, September 10, 2015

Food fight : the origins of Australian cult foods up for debate

Forget politics. Or religion. Same-sex marriage? Nuh-uh.

The best way to ensure some robust debate between friends (especially those interstate or international) is to claim ownership of a certain foodstuff.

Don't believe us?

Take the Neenish Tart.

Essays have been written about the origins of the humble staple of country bakeries nationwide and still, the matter is not settled.

Indeed, the Sydney Morning Herald's famed Column 8 has devoted column inches to the contentious matter in a highly entertaining debate between readers over the years. 

Some believe the tasty pastry came from the kitchens of one Ruby Neenish, of Grong Grong, NSW.

Others believe that story, and Mrs Neenish herself, are a fiction.

The earliest recorded recipe of the bi-coloured bite can be found in Miss Drake's Home Cookery, written by Lucy Drake, published in 1929 in Glenferrie, Victoria.

The CWA, for their part, have laid strong claim to the tart, those of German and Austrian descent proffer their own links but we must assume, its true birthplace might never be known.


A Giant Neenish Tart? Controversial. 

So in the sweet spirit of taking a bite out of each other, we bring you our top seven foods claimed to be all-Australian - both contested and confirmed in their beginnings.



The Chiko Roll

The Aussie classic (that, in fact, contains no chicken) was invented by Frank McEncroe, born in Castlemaine but later a boilermaker from Bendigo, Victoria - both towns claim him as a favoured son.

In 1950, McEncroe saw a competitor selling Chinese chop suey rolls outside Richmond Cricket Ground and hit upon the idea of a substantial snack that could be held in one hand leaving the other free for more important business at the footy - opening a cold one, for instance.

The Chiko Roll, debuted at the Wagga Wagga Agriculture Show in 1951 but made a triumphant return to the southern state in 1960s, McEncroe moved to Melbourne with his family and began to manufacture the rolls en masse.



The Meat Pie

Woah Nelly! The meat pie an Australian invention? Many, many countries lay claim to the mighty meat pie, firstly by Ancient Egyptians (9500 BC), Greeks, Romans, the English, Latin Americans and on and on and on.

But, you'd be inviting trouble if you denied Australia fair bragging rights in the invention of the snack in its current form.

One of the most famous was first produced in 1947 by L. T. McClure in a small bakery in Bendigo and was destined to become the famous Four'N'Twenty.

Older still, Sargents Pies can trace their pie making back to 1906, but George, Charlotte and Foster Sargent - before they lit out on their own - had already been selling pies for a penny in a small shop in Paddington, Sydney since 1891.

In South Australia, Balfours and Vili's have both been making pies for more than 100 years.

Which brings us to…



The Pie Floater

The pie floater - an upside-down pie in a bowl of pea soup, topped with either tomato sauce or, sometimes, Worcestershire Sauce (controversial, we know) - was reputedly invented by a South Australian Port Pirie baker known as Ern 'Shorty' Bradley at the turn of the 20th century. Woolloomooloo's Harry Cafe De Wheels deserves an honourable mention for having served the, uh, attractive dish since it opened its shutters in 1938. 



The Lamington

Most of the argy-bargy surrounding the origins of the Lamington concern the name - while most agree it was named after Lord Lamington, who served as Governor of Queensland from 1896 to 1901, although some reckon it was for his wife, Lady Lamington. Another account reckons they were named after the Scottish village of Lamington, South Lanarkshire, however this may be pure semantics as the Lord hailed from Lamington and now we are splitting coconut flakes…

It is mostly accepted the treats were first served in Toowoomba in 1900 when Lord Lamington took his entourage to Harlaxton House to escape the heat of Brisbane.



The Dim Sim

Invented right here in Melbourne by Chinese chef William Wing Young for his restaurant Wing Lee around 1945.

But the mighty meaty dim sim really got its cult following at the South Melbourne Markets sold by Melbourne legend Ken (Kuen) Cheng from 1949 until his death in 2006. Vale.



The Iced Vovo 

Kevin Rudd poured a giant cup of cold tea on the Labor Party faithful's celebrations at being returned to power after 11 years in the wilderness in 2007 by suggesting everyone calm down and have an Iced Vovo.

But a greater shock to the system is that the iconic jammy biscuit isn't actually ours.

Or so those dastardly New Zealand types would have us believe. Apparently a Kiwi biscuit company going by the name Auselbrooks, established in the 1860s, were making Iced VoVos well before Arnotts registered the name.

And Arnotts have quietly acknowledged this to be true.

Humph. Enough to make one take a Bex and have a good lie down.



The Pavlova

Ah. The great bone of contention between Australians and our Kiwi cousins.

So the story goes like this. (The real story. Promise).

Inspired by visits by the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova during her 1926 and 1929 tours of Australia, Western Australian chef Herbert Sachse of Perth's Hotel Esplanade created a confection that was "as light" as the prima ballerina herself. End of story.

Except, these origins are heavily disputed by New Zealanders who claim their cookbooks have older versions of the fruity, creamy, light, delicious summer dessert.

Likely story.


Anyway, you can always complement your meal - pie floater, meat pie, Pavlova, anyone? - with a glass or two of "plonk".

It's a term that came from Australian soldiers on the Western Front in France during World War I.

To their untutored ears, vin blanc - white wine - sounded like "plonk".

They adopted it as their word for all forms of wine, and brought it home, where it stayed. So it's a well-travelled term.

And it's ours.


Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Henry Every: The King of Pirates

Henry Every (or Avery) is remembered for capturing the richest pirate prize ever and also for apparently being wise enough to retire from the business and enjoy his ill-gotten gains. 

He was born in the West Country of England, famous for providing England with a large percentage of its seafarers.  He served briefly in the Royal Navy, and then moved on to the slave trade, where the pay was better although dishonorable. 

In 1693, he was serving as first mate on the Spanish privateer Charles II when the crew became disgruntled and mutinied.  The ship was renamed Fancy and Every was elected captain.  After plundering ships off West Africa, they moved into the Indian Ocean. 

In 1695, the Fancy had reached the Red Sea and joined up with a number of other pirates.  They launched an uncoordinated attack on the Mughal treasure fleet that included the main treasure ship Ganj-i-sawai and the smaller Fateh Muhammed. 

Thomas Tew, commanding the pirate sloop Amity, was killed in an attack on the Fateh Muhammed.  The Mughal ship, though, had incurred significant damage from that attack and was unable to withstand a second attack by Every on the heavily-armed Fancy.  Every then turned his attention to the even larger Ganj-i-sawai, capturing it also. 

The pirate crew was incensed by the damage inflicted by the Indian vessels and promptly tortured and killed most of the Indian sailors and soldiers on board.  They also attacked the Indian women on board, many of whom committed suicide to escape their fate. 

The treasure on the two Indian ships was enormous, with an estimated value of £600,000.  Every’s share made him the richest pirate in history. 

Because Britain was seeking good relations with the Mughal Empire, it launched a worldwide manhunt for Every and his crew.  They had fled to the Bahamas, where they divided the treasure and split up.  Many, though, were eventually captured, tried, convicted, and hanged. 

Henry Every was never heard of again.  Rumors circulated that he had changed his identity and assumed a quiet life back home in the West Country, but there was no evidence to support the story.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Gough Island: One of the most remote and pristine islands in the world

Gough Island in located in the South Atlantic Ocean, somewhat closer to Africa than to South America, being 2,000 miles from South America while a mere 1,500 miles from Africa.  It is about 250 miles south-southeast of the Tristan da Cunha group.  It is part of the United Kingdom Overseas Territory of St. Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha. 

There is no permanent human habitation except for a six-person meteorological team from South Africa that changes out with new individuals each year. 

The island and its outlying rocks cover approximately 35 square miles.  The highest elevation, Edinburgh Peak, rises to a height of almost 3,000 feet. 

The island was discovered by Gonçalo Álvares in 1505 when he nearly bumped into it while on a voyage from Portugal to India.  It was visited briefly by an English mariner in 1675 and then neglected until 3 March 1732 when it was visited and accurately charted by the British merchant Charles Gough. 

During the nineteenth century Gough Island was occasionally visited by sealers.  It was formally claimed by the UK in 1938. 

Due to its minimal human contact and its distance from large landmasses, Gough Island is one of the least-disrupted marine ecosystems in the cool temperate zone.  There are no indigenous mammals and the last rats have been eradicated.  It is home to one of the largest colonies of sea birds and to two endemic species of land birds – the almost flightless Gough moorhen and the Gough finch.  There are also twelve endemic species of plants. The island hosts 22 species of seabirds, including albatrosses and petrels, as well as penguins. 

It is of volcanic origin, sharing the same submerged mantle plume as Tristan da Cunha, but is composed of more ancient material described as of Large Low Shear Velocity Providence (you have to admire the ingenuity of geologists to come up with such a term).

While the volcano on Tristan da Cunha is active, the one on Gough Island is long extinct.