Friday, 5 January 2018

A Matter of Taste

Its 1974 I’m sitting on the stairs at the old Joel’s Auction rooms in McKillop Street Melbourne waiting for a lot to come up. In those days the most extraordinary stuff turned up for sale and that day it was a job-lot of about 300 political cartoons that belonged to Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ private secretary. I had spent the last 24 hours trying to work out how I was going to get the money to buy this most important collection. By the next day I had reconciled having to let it go and waited to see how much interest they would bring. As the lot came up the bidding stalled at $750 and before I knew it I had bought the collection for $800 thinking it would surely go for thousands?? I wrote a cheque and realised I had until Monday [Joel’s are still selling on Thursdays] to cover the cheque. My first call was to show them to my friend and “go to guy” for cartoons Vane Lindesay the great Australian Black and White artist and historian whose cartoons graced Australasian Post and many other publications. 

Vane was over the moon to see them and explained how important the collection was but he was also not in a position to buy them but offered to swap me two of them for two original Leunigs an offer that I could not resist. At the time I had a shop in Collins street that specialised in Art Deco, Australiana and ephemera. Barry Humphries was a good customer. He collected Australiana and I went up to the Windsor where he was living at the time and left a note for him to ring as soon as he got back. By Saturday afternoon I had no word from Barry and I went to see my friend Ann Turner [History professor Ian Turner’s wife] for some advice as to how not to be arrested for cheque fraud.  Ann was a fixer and she rang Cliff Pugh who said bring them over. Cliff bought the collection and I managed to keep 2 of them. One was a Will Dyson pastel portrait of Gerald du Maurier drawn as a magician in a tux pulling a rabbit out of a hat [subsequently stolen in a burglary] and this wonderful David Low cartoon of Billy Hughes and fat “friend”. I liked the joke but always thought there was more to the story than the “Why worry about it” punchline.
After Cliff bought the lot and told me he would donate the collection to the various galleries that had a geographical or political connection to the drawings. He was that sort of man a mensch.
 Good result. Vane had two for his collection I had two wonderful Leunigs and a Dyson, this David Low and the rest of the collection would go to where it was meant to be.
Fast forward [fuck its 43 years!] to a couple of months ago when Diane noticed that historian Ross McMullin was giving a talk at the Kyneton Library about Pompey Elliot He was a great presenter and after the talk I bought his book about Chris Watson Australia’s third Prime minister “So Monstrous a Travesty” the story of the first national Labour government in the world. Great book
In the second chapter we hear about his choosing a ministry that would include two future prime ministers Andrew Fisher and Billy Hughes.  His choice of Senate leader was Gregor Mc Gregor who had lost most of his sight in a logging accident while working as a labourer [good working-class politician] but had a remarkable memory “he buttressed his vigorous speeches with streams of memorised statistics’. This ex wrestler [also good training for politics] “had become plump to the point of stoutness with a massive square shaped head”
That’s when the penny dropped Billy Hughes’  dining companion was revealed to be no other than blind Gregor McGregor.
So finally, another level of politically incorrect comment was revealed in the “joke” that now still has a resonance and truth in the madness that the “modernist” food world has become.
So why worry about it?

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Gyuri could you go down to Acland street and get some……

We were in Erdotelek about 75 km from Budapest when the fireworks went off in October 56 but Dad was stuck in the city and he spent the revolution quietly in the cellar of the Astoria hotel and the Emke Kavekhaz. When the dust settled things moved very quickly. After a couple of aborted attempts at being smuggled across the border by those who would now be termed people smugglers, we managed to get out of Hungary with the help of my fathers’ sisters’ family who were already living in St. Kilda. We slipped through the curtain in April 57.
As soon as we arrived in Melbourne Acland Street became the Main Street of our new lives. After about a year in a shared house with another Hungarian couple in East Kilda we moved into the Sur la Mer block of flats opposite Luna Park; about as close as you could get to Acland street and far far away from the chaos and pain of Budapest.
St. Kilda and Acland street as its nucleus, was a magic playground to a young new arrival. We had left everything behind but my parents still carried a lot of heavy baggage. I joined a loose gang of immigrant urchins, most of who were also enrolled at Brighton Road primary school. We learned to keep shtum and out of the way just watching the grownup rituals quietly from the wings occasionally playing the go between.  Our playgrounds were now not the dark streets of Budapest, Warsaw, and Berlin but Acland Street surrounded by the Palais, The Victory, St. Moritz and South Pacific all of which we could enter by secret lore known only to the street. The cosmopolitan atmosphere of this village of emigres made the huge culture shock easier for my parents. St. Kilda provided true asylum.
My crowd were the little ones, we were all under 10 and as youngsters we collected Tarax and other drink bottles around the beach that carried small deposits you could redeem at Acland street Milk Bars. This foraging kept us in pocket money and the beaches clean. We also collected bottle tops that had hidden letters under the cork revealing clues to prizes. We would sit at the peanut farm swapping bottle tops and playing alleys.  
All our family food came from the many butchers, bakers, fruiterers and delicatessen on the street. Only Peter Gruners’ butcher shop and the Monarch remain from those days. Our Hungarian tribal clubhouse was the Flamingo a slightly risqué but friendly café restaurant. It had a different personality depending on the time of day. Early in the morning it was shift workers having breakfast, at weekend lunches it was tourists and families. Early in the evening many local families would gather to eat together before starting their second jobs. Later in the evening the young singles strutted in their fifties finery. Although we were allowed out at night I was told never to go there after 10pm The Flamingo had a killer jukebox dead centre as you walked in, a café bar with a big eszpreszo machine on the right, a small dining room on the left and a pool hall with two full sized billiard tables out the back. It was a Hungarian but not specifically Jewish cafe and there was no anti-Semitism. The Australian locals who had immediately embraced the Porkolt and schnitzel were our sounding boards for the new language. On Sunday mornings it became the stamp club with a large core membership of middle aged men sitting around communal tables drinking coffee and peering into magnifying glasses trading stamps and talking politics.  I learned to love rock and roll from that jukebox and the facts of life in the back room under the billiard tables. 

My mother opened a strudel shop in the old market on the corner of Acland street and Barkly street roughly where the supermarket now stands. She had two small Early Kooka stove/ovens and a large wooden table where she stretched her ethereal pastry much to the delight of the locals. Poppy seeds could be bought freshly ground just as they still are today at Gruners’ but Morello cherries only came in tins, it would take another 50 years for them to be available fresh. She made both savoury strudel like cabbage and caraway, also sweet like cottage cheese and sultanas but my favourite was the one with poppy seeds and cherries. The secret of her paper thin pastry lay in her tender touch learned from her mother and a little lemon juice in the pastry. She also made a fine walnut chocolate cake that I have continued to make for over forty years in her memory.

 The market had a large central fruit stall with small shops set around the edges. Her shop was only one of two that was enclosed and it had windows facing into the centre at the back of the market. It was the least visible site. The shop next door was vacant. The rents were cheap and the whole street in fact served well as a start-up hub for the New Australians. There was a side entrance to Coles from the market where most of our school stationary and accessories came from. Cosmos Bookshop was where Readings now stands and it had a small section of Hungarian books that my mother and sister constantly checked for new arrivals. They also provided a book exchange for the expats.  I got my hair cut by one of two traditional Australian barbers who made us feel grown up by shaving our sideboards and necks with a cut-throat razor way before we grew any fuzz. Suddenly the Flamingo disappeared and the Hungarians moved to the Excellent and later there was a split between this, the Miami and The Balaton. The juke box and billiard tables were gone but there was a room for traditional Hungarian card players upstairs. The card game was a Hungarian form of bridge played by three people called Ulti where, put very simply, to win the game you had to take the last trick with the lowest trump. This concept epitomised the Magyar psyche. I loved the look of the cards The suits were the seasons and the court cards were all characters like William Tell and other mythical heroes and heroines.  I would kibitz by my fathers’ side bringing coffee, snacks and changing ashtrays while they talked of the old and the new. Often after the game a group would come home to enjoy a late Sunday lunch cooked by my mother. There was an air of optimism.  

 My father soon opened a small fruit shop in the street with a friend who had also left Hungary after the Russian “liberation”. They had an FJ ute and I was occasionally allowed to accompany him very early in the morning to the Victoria market which was then also the wholesale market to get supplies. I have never lost the love of that place.
Being asked to get something from Acland street was an adventure. Bread meant a Challah on Fridays On other days a light rye or a Vienna loaf. The Vienna was the signature St. Kilda loaf a large slow risen low yeast loaf with a shiny thin crisp crust that I now recognise as being the result of steam injection at the end of the bake. Delicatessens like the Budapest, the Edelweiss and the Benedykt provided all the continental culinary essentials. From paprika, yeast, salami, dill pickles to smelly Esrom and Tilsit cheeses. The culinary groundwork had already been made by those lucky enough to have got out of Europe early. Mum made most things from scratch but the convenience of dried noodles, pickled herring, sauerkraut and such enabled her to cook as she had in Budapest while still working full time. You could even get live chickens and unlaid egg yolks or oocytes at the kosher poultry shop. The whole family cooked. My father loved the smallgoods and could make wonderful traditional stews. My sister also did a lot of the shopping and cooking as often the oldies worked late. Later when I left home to a shared house in Park Street ironically only 100meters again from Acland street. I realised that I could cook without having had any formal instructions.
 The first non-European restaurant I went to was the Tientsin. The iconic circular entrance announced a dark wood panelled 1960’s film set interior, imaginings of an elegant exotic room where flavours so foreign to my limited experience often left me bewildered. As we got older we lived in many other flats around the Belle and except for a short stint in South Caulfield we never strayed further than Dickens Street. This short exile introduced me to a new group of friends from much wider backgrounds. But soon we were back in the hood to our OYO apartment in Mitford Street just a hundred metres from the Belle. My parents continued to live there for the rest of their lives.
  We soon graduated to the Black Rose Cafe where over dishes like Rinsroulenden [beef olives] we could listen to the finest modern Jazz that the owners would play all night. They collected rare records that we would covet and try to find later. Here as junior beatniks in skivvies and tight pants we discussed the books our older siblings were reading, the Vietnam war, or the latest Dylan album while pretending to be grownups drinking short back coffees amongst the very bohemian older clientele. The Black Rose would also be where we would adjourn to after a night at the Melbourne Film Festival to discuss films like the Seventh Seal or the latest Goddard. Late night munchies came from the hamburger joint on the corner of Carlisle Street and Acland street where Greasy Joes would reign for many years. They had a carefully polished mirror grill manned by a master. After each order he would meticulously bring back the shine no matter how busy they were. By the time the Fairy Stork opened our palates had learned to love exotic Asian flavours.
  I would often wander in to the makeshift film studio at the back of the RSL where commercials and later television shows were filmed and wondered at the magical modernity of show biz. The movie On The Beach had just been filmed in Melbourne and there was a mock nuclear submarine sideshow built on to the side of South Pacific the sea baths. One night, hearts pumping with adrenalin we painted a ban the bomb sign on its side. Over Felafel and thick coffee, we listened to the news of the Six Day War with the Egyptian owners of the café.  After that day felafels started to get complicated.     
I was heartened by the new wave revival of St. Kilda in the eighties. When my good friend Donlevy Fitzpatrick opened the Dogs Bar another exiting chapter had begun for the street. As the oldies still lived there  I never lost contact with Acland street even when I moved to the country over 30 years ago.  Maximus, The Prince, Daniel Gerrard,  Ciccolina, Spuntino, Greasy Joes Chinta Ria merely added echoes to the legacy of the early Oyster Cafes and Grills of the past.
My family table and the diversity of Acland Street provided the inspiration to me for a life in restaurants and I believe all the people who brought their traditions and took the risk of presenting them on this extraordinary little street throughout all decades played a very important role in the development of a cosmopolitan culinary culture in Melbourne.

Excerpt from Judith Buckrich's new book   Acland Street the Grand Lady of St Kilda  available all good bookshops and of course  Readings  review here


Sunday, 1 November 2015

True Confessions or how Socrates should have had a few Double Espressos

This has taken me over a year to fess up but wandering around the river at Kyneton this morning has pricked my conscience and I have swallowed my pride...  forgive me my brothers for I have partaken...  but hey it’s a serious warning.
It started really well, I had been in town and scored a great 60’s bookcase at Joel’s and found the right flooring for the new “don’t call it a studio” studio and also got quite a few urgent jobs done. So when Diane greeted me with the welcome “do you want a coffee? “  when I got home, my rampant enthusiasm was further stoked. Because she had just had one, she presented me with the full double dose long espresso from the new machine, just roasted beans great fuel.
Over the preceding months walks along the river revealed some great plants. Blackberries, feral fruit trees all sorts of wild forrageable foods?  Among these we also saw great flushes of a very attractive umbriferous plant that Diane had called wild parsnip. After my coffee I noticed that the small self sown ‘wild parsnip” that I had been watching in the vegie garden had grown considerably and I picked it.

 It had a long straight root a bit like salsify or indeed parsnip. 

 I tasted it and it had a stringy outer layer but the inner root was delightfully sweet and really moreish delicious. Light bulbs went off... hey a new ingredient in such abundance that it will surely inflame the neophilic foodie culture so “on point” for these wild food days.
Intrigued as to why no one else in say, Northcote, Denmark or Brooklyn had promoted this discovery I went to the culinary  books  in the shed and it all started to go pear shaped very quickly. Apparently the more common name for this “wild parsnip” is Poison Hemlock. Now this did not look really good as I had eaten a good couple of inches of the inside of the core root. I quickly consulted the online oracles and it was really looking a bit serious.
I rang the poisons department hot line and a very calm young man after about 6 key identifying questions suggested that I grab the plant and get my arse off to the hospital as soon as possible.  On arrival at the Kyneton hospital at the emergency department they were already getting the equipment ready to get me hooked up to various beeping machines in the ambulance that was waiting with doors open. Mr Poisons Department had already rung the hospital and I was quickly put on a cardiogram and a drip input was poked into my arm. With thick rubber gloves they examined the ‘Parsnip’ and placed it in a labelled bag and very quickly I was on my way to Royal Melbourne Hospital. The ambulance was apparently better equipped to deal with what might eventuate in the next 60 minutes than the emergency dept of the hospital.
Now those of you who know me will attest to my wowser like boring stance on wild fungi and indiscriminate foraging.
The Do Not Taste Without Expert Identification sermon that I always sprout has over the years led to my withdrawing from hosting fungi forays in the dread of someone later innocently tasting a toxic fungus or worse serving one in a restaurant.   So now flat out and wired up in the ambulance I am fantasizing the twitter conversations and Facebook comments and such tut tutting after the death notices appear....
But clearly it did not kill me but the ride down to town was full of apprehension and  I might say a little humour.
The ambos had forgiven me for dragging them off the beat with my stupidity and were quite engaged as they had never had a case of hemlock poisoning before. So iPads came out and a constant communication was being kept with the emergency dept in Melbourne. I had my phone so I was also getting an education in Hemlock pharmacology. We went through the identification with some detail. Yes hollow stem, yes  all the colours habitat etc matched perfectly  We had the Socrates jokes  but my toes and other extremities  had not started to lose feeling and I was apart from being pissed off that I had been so careless  feeling OK. . All bodily functions were beeping normally.  We all found from various sources that eating the root was one of  the most potent parts. That did nothing for my well being but also nothing to the beeps on the monitors.  As the interest waned in my demise the ambos explained to me in detail of why the graffiti for better conditions was scrawled all over the van and I got a good education on the shit conditions they had to work with. Now that at least  has thankfully been fixed. But at the time made me feel even more guilty.  Then on a legit medical website we saw that one of the suggested antidotes to Hemlock poisoning was caffeine... and I started to feel a little better.  But on arrival at emergency the registrar grabbed my bag of ‘wild parsnips’ whisked me into a cubicle and hooked me up to more wires. I told him of the big double dose of caffeine I had ingested and he just looked at me with bemusement Hmm 2 inches of root you say? Shakes head.  After a further hour of observation I was evicted from the cubicle into the hall and told to let them know if I was feeling wonky. Then after a further 2 hours I was released just in time to catch the last train back to Kyneton. I had survived eating poison hemlock and yes it did taste OK. Thanks RMH. So when you see the beautiful flushes of this ubiquitous weed all along the Campaspe, the Barwon or in your vegie beds  take care. It really is everywhere and possibly we should be more alerted to its dangers. Apparently children using the hollow stalks for pea shooters have been poisoned and quail and other game birds [that it does not affect] that have eaten the seeds can also be poisonous.
So another one for the sermon. 


 Hope you got the invite Di’s excited.