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 [GONE] 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



Anonymous said...

Fabulous piece of Acland street history and the vibe of the whole place was exactly as written.
We, my father, mother and two sisters moved to 6 Shakespeare grove St.Kilda in January 1960 from Swan street Richmond after three years there. After arriving from Hungary in February 1957, we moved from the very desolate Bonegilla migrant hostel to Richmond
If I may add, the " Coles " store mentioned early in this article which , for me, is a very happy reflective journey back in time, was called " Embassy " where poeple could get 1000's of types of useful inexpensive nick nacks from mouse traps to a huge range of kitchen utensils, a great range of stationary for both adults and children, candles, corks, etc, etc, and for us young children a big range of packets of foreign stamps for either 6 pence or 1/- .
Thanks for taking me back in time to the truly cosmopolitan Acland street

George Biron said...

Thanks Annon yes the stamps such a treasure in each bag and the Embassy brand I had forgotten. A time well before the notion of Home-Brands had arrived.