One of my favourite childhood memories is of waking up at my grandparents’ house when we stayed in school holidays.

Tucked under our flannelette sheets up the cold end of the house, we could hear the door to the kitchen open (it had a distinctive creak). From that door came the signals of early morning: the radio on the local station, the door of the wood stove grating as it was opened and closed, Grandma moving around. Light, warmth.

And the smell of toast.

Like my parents, my grandparents were dairy farmers. Before Grandpa and my uncles went out to milk, Grandma would make them tea and toast, which was eaten sitting round the wood stove.

She cooked the toast at the fire compartment of the stove, holding the bread right up to the flames with a dinner fork. (Grandma had asbestos hands. The washing-up water she used would take your skin off.) She owned an electric toaster, and used it at breakfast later in the morning, but the early morning toast was always made on the fire. Grandma would spread the cooked toast with butter and then lay it in an enamel dish in the oven to keep warm.

That toast was the best tasting food in the world. Warm smokiness, infused with salty melted butter, all mingled with the pleasure of the child who had managed to wake up in time to be included in this adult workday rite.

Food memories are often as much about the ritual and feelings evoked as the food itself.

The simplest of foods, toast barely scrapes (sorry) into the definition of ‘cooking’. But it holds a special comfort-food status for many, even in an age where wheat and carbs don’t work for everyone.

The nature of toast really doesn’t change, except maybe for the cooking utensil. In 1911, Australians are already starting to read about toasting machines among the wonders that could be used in the new ‘electrified’ homes. By 1915, electric toasters are being advertised.

And yet even now it’s still better when cooked over a fire.

Toast is the food of beginnings. Of breakfast at the start of the day. The first food we’re trusted to prepare on our own as children. It’s what we want to eat when we’re feeling sick, or too tired to cook. It’s why Australians lug tubes of Vegemite overseas.

And so, a toast. To toast.




A bit about butterine

A bit about butterine

It seems Australians have been getting steamed up about butter substitutes for more than 100 years.

Margarine (sometimes called oleomargarine or oleo) was invented in France around 1870. I always assumed it didn’t take hold in Australia until the 1940s, when butter became scarce under wartime rationing.

In fact Melbourne was home to a ‘butterine’ factory in Yarraville in 1885, pretty much under where the Westgate Bridge is now. Its owner, Frederick Phillips, had brought out American men experienced the new technology of margarine making.

The Victorian public didn’t exactly embrace butterine. Melbourne papers reported cases of shopkeepers charged with passing it off as butter. Country papers bemoaned this strange product that sold in the city and threatened local dairymen. Versions of gags like this one did regular rounds of the humour sections right up until the Great War:

“How do you pronounce the last syllable in ‘butterine’ ” asked the customer.

“You don’t pronounce it, madam; it is silent”, stiffly remarked the butter dealer as he weighed her out six pounds of oleo.

In this highly skeptical climate, Phillips exhibited some PR moves a modern publicist would be proud of.

Not long after opening, he invited the Weekly Times in for a look at his factory and a walk through (most of) the modern, pristine manufacturing process, which the paper describes in detail.

Did I mention that before the 1950s, margarine products were based on animal fats not vegetable fats?

Beef kidney and caul fat was brought in from local meat suppliers to be sorted, chopped and pulped. In a secret room it then underwent some mysterious procedure known only to the managers (presumably this was the knowledge brought from America). This resulted in rendered fat. They then added ‘Danish colouring fluid’, which the reader was assured was also used in butter making to get that nice yellow hue. After some steaming and pressing, the liquid oozed out. That was churned with a little bit of actual milk, then after some repeated plunging and patting … hey presto, butterine!

If you couldn’t afford the top quality stuff, there was always the second-grade oozing.

In a world where people worried about food adulteration, and mass food manufacture was pretty new, perhaps this description of a scientific, partly mechanised processes and the ‘scrupulous cleanliness’ of a modern factory comes across differently – but it’s hard to read it without our 21st century sensibilities.

Careful to emphasise that butterine was superior butter in its own right, Phillips assured readers that he only ever sold his product as butterine – if unscrupulous shopkeepers did otherwise, what was he to do? Any anyway, Phillips argued, butterine was a very accessible alternative for the poor.

The company also fired off many energetic letters to editors taking on the butterine critics, and sent butterine samples for review to Adelaide and Perth papers ahead of selling through agents there.

Similar articles continued to appear in other papers. When you get to the North Melbourne Leader’s effusive take in 1887, you have to think that advertorials are probably nothing new:

‘But above all it has brought about an improvement in the culinary art, for it is now extensively used by all classes in the preparation of pastry and puddings, sauces, fancy cakes being eminently adapted for the purpose and preferred in this respect to butter by all connoisseurs de la cuisine’

The Leader reported that 14,500 pounds of butterine was being made every week, and large amounts were exported to NSW and Queensland.

But for all his efforts, Phillips’ butterine forays don’t appear to have lasted long. Farmers’ lobbying paid off and in 1893 the Victorian Margarine Act came into effect. Strictly regulating manufacture and banning use of the nice yellow food colouring, it certainly would have made things harder.

But things were probably going wrong for Phillips before that. He became insolvent in 1886, and his brother took over running the business. Then, in 1887 there was a fire at the Sydney butterine factory managed by Phillips’ business partner, where a large shipment of Yarraville butterine was stored. There followed a protracted court case with their insurance company.

Among the evidence given in that case, the Australian Star reported the unfortunate information that there had previously been three fires at businesses Phillips had been involved with, including his Yarraville storehouse in 1886. They still won the case.

To be fair, when it came to fire risk, a butterine factory was probably like one big tallow candle. But luckily for Phillips, he always seemed to be very well insured.

The sincerest form of flattery

The sincerest form of flattery

Are ‘mock’ foods poor imitations or making the best of what you have?

We’re pretty familiar with the idea of replicating a favourite food using other ingredients. Catering for common dietary restrictions and food intolerances have introduced us to vegan hotdogs, fakon, soy milk, and egg substitutes. Just because we can’t eat a food doesn’t mean we don’t want to feel like we’re eating it from time to time.

And disguising foods is nothing new. As kids we’ve all been told that there was defintiely no [insert hated ingredient here] in the meal in front of us.

Old recipes abound for all sorts of ‘mock’ dishes – everything from mock duck, pigeon, goose or fish through to mock raspberry jam or mock cream. Maybe the real thing was unobtainable (mock cream). Perhaps you had a glut of produce (mock rasperry jam was made of tomatoes or melons). Or you wanted to dress up less palatable foodstuffs – even disguise their borderline freshness.

Savory duck recipe, Camperdown Chronicle

Have a look at this recipe for ‘Savory duck’, from my home town paper, the Camperdown Chronicle, in 1934. You have to admit that calling it ‘Ox liver balls wrapped in pig’s caul and shaped like turkey eggs’ wouldn’t be anywhere near as appealing. See the original recipe on the National Library of Australia’s Trove website.

Transcript below:

“Savory Duck —Mince one pound of ox liver and add to it eight ounces of white breadcrumbs, two large onions parboiled and chopped, half a small teaspoonful of powdered sage, and pepper and salt to taste. Mix the ingredients well together and form the mixture into balls the size of turkey eggs. Wrap each portion in a piece of pig’s caul and place them side by side in a baking-tin. Moisten them with a teacupful of gravy or water and bake them in a slow oven for an hour.”

Then there are dishes that just defy explanation, like this 1932 mock tripe recipe from the Port Lincoln Times. It replaces tripe with ‘lamb flaps’. Hard to pick the least appetising option there.

Mock chicken

Not surprisingly, the poor old rabbit was something that regularly got disguised. Australian recipes from the 40s and 50s feature plenty of ‘mock chicken’, rabbit-based dishes. I don’t imagine anyone was fooled – and perhaps that wasn’t the point. If rabbit was your only meat most of the week, it was probably just nice to pretend it was something else from time to time. And what better than chicken, which you probably only got at Christmas IF you were lucky?

Mock chicken sandwiches were pretty easy to come by at the country hall afternoon teas of my childhood. Rather than rabbit, this was a savoury cheese and egg mixture. I recall my aunt making a particularly good version (she makes a particularly good version of pretty much everything).

I had a go at making this version from my copy of Cookery the Australian Way. They call it Mock Duck – perhaps by the time of my edition chicken had become a bit commonplace.

For this to be the legit mock chicken of my childhood, you really have to use Kraft cheddar. Which I did.

Mock chicken (or duck if you want to be all fancy like Cookery the Australian Way)

  • 2 tomatoes
  • 1 tbs butter
  • 1 onion, grated
  • 3 shakes pepper
  • 1 teaspoon herbs
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tbs grated cheese

Peel and chop tomatoes. Melt butter in saucepan and saute onion. Add tomatoes, pepper and herbs. Cook until tender (10 mins). Beat egg and add with cheese to mixture. Stir over low heat until thickened.

The result is quite a tasty, slightly scrambled eggy, topping. It looks nothing like chicken, and no one would think it WAS chicken – but I suppose the onion and herbs do supply a savouriness reminiscent of roast chicken.

And maybe that’s a reason for eating ‘mock’ food that we share with cooks of earlier times: in the end it’s just a way to evoke a flavour, a texture, even the idea of a food, when you don’t have the real thing.


On a junket

On a junket

As a kid I remember people talking about junket more than eating it.

It evoked strong feelings in my parents’ generation – people who were fed it as children. Seems you loved it or hated it. My mother came down firmly on the ‘hate it’ side, and never served it. I guess other families still ate it. I can certainly remember the packets on supermarket shelves next to the jelly.

Junket’s a lighty set, milk-based dessert. The setting agent is rennet, which curdles the milk, making junket Miss Muffet’s original ‘curds and whey’. Rennet comes from an enzyme in calves’ stomaches. Yes.

My mother’s dislike of things rich and milky was the most likely reason we never had junket, but I’m sure the idea of calf-stomach dessert wouldn’t have made it any more attractive.  And yes, I know rennet is a key ingredient in most cheesemaking, but cheese can do anything it wants in my book, and nothing will ruin it for me. And you can get vegetarian rennet these days, can’t you?

Early 20th century junket recipes in Australian newspapers mention rennet tablets and powder being available from chemists. It seems even back then junket was quite doable, and I can see why it would have been a popular dessert option. All you really needed was fresh milk and some sugar, and hey presto, you had dessert, set fast and at room temperature.

Junket was also promoted as the perfect food for fussy children and invalids. I’m not at all convinced about this obsession with dubious textures for children and the ill. More about that another time.

Before the flavoured junkets available in the 1950s it seems you flavoured your plain junket with things like fruit, jam, almond, coffee or nutmeg. Recipes for ‘Devonshire junket’ included nutmeg or cinnamon, a splash of brandy and clotted cream – that certainly takes it beyond the quick and plain dessert.

Making junket

I found plain junket tablets in the desserts section of my local supermarket, so I thought I’d have a go. The lurid flavoured stuff doesn’t seem to be available any more.

The tablets are packed in foil like aspirins. You heat the milk to ‘blood temperature’ (37 degrees centigrade), adding sugar and any flavouring you want – I used vanilla. Then you add the dissolved rennet tablet, and quickly pour into serving bowls to set.

The set was pretty soft. I used reduced fat milk, which may have contributed.

The verdict?

Look, I need to declare my biases here. I inherited my mother’s distaste for milky, creamy things. I’m also not a big fan of the slippery, smooth texture that you get in desserts like panna cottas and creme caramels. But given all that it, it wasn’t bad. The lower fat milk meant it wasn’t rich, and I served it with some rasperry sauce I’d made which gave it some oomph. Those in the house with greater tolerance for the milky and slippery declared my junket a success.

Given that I associate junket with very homely, older style cookery, it was suprisingly delicate. I could actually imagine it as a really fragrant, sophisticated dish using , say, a teensy bit of rosewater and with pistachios sprinkled on top.

It loses its sophistiation pretty quickly, though. Once you get a spoon into it, the curds break up very quickly and you’re left with something closer in texture to lumpy milk. Or something you might associate with a baby. I can see why you set it in individual serving bowls.

With access to firmer and more reliable setting agents and good refrigeration, it’s probably not  terribly surprising that junket has all but disappeared. Then again, maybe the thought of the calves had something to do with it.