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 in Budapest. 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
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
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
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 on the corner of Chapel Street and Dandenong Road. After that day felafels started to get
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