A taste of history: Cooking with gastronomer Jacqui Newling

Image credit: Sydney Living Museums

This story first appeared on former NRMA site Living Well Navigator on September 26, 2014.

Most of us have wondered what life would have been like back in the early days of colonial Australia. But perhaps not so common a question is what did Australians eat and how did they prepare it way back then?

We spoke with Jacqui Newling, resident gastronomer at Sydney Living Museums, to ask just that. She shares her insights into the history and heritage of food in colonial Australia.

You are a colonial gastronomer for Sydney Living Museums. How did you come to work in the role and what does it entail?

I completed a Masters in Gastronomy through Le Cordon Bleu and Adelaide University in 2007. I’ve always had a fascination for Australian colonial history, so chose food in early colonial settlement of New South Wales for my research dissertation – and from then I was hooked!

Finding work in 200-year-old food isn’t easy, but our historic houses all had – and some still have – kitchens and dining rooms, food-related objects in their collections, journals, letters, accounts ledgers, recipes and cookery books that give us an idea of what and how people cooked and ate. The role entails looking at our properties, the times they represent and the stories they tell with food as a lens – what does the food people ate tell us about them and the way they lived, and the society they lived in?

Your work explores our history through food. What do you enjoy most about it?

I really enjoy the stories that come with the food – it’s never ever about the actual food item itself, the fascination is in the cultural meaning of it in its time. Remember the terribly overused adage ‘tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are’? It’s about people and how they affect food. It’s about gender and class, economics and politics, environment and technology and taste – in the literal sense and the broader cultural sense. Was it exotic and prestigious or fit only for servants and convict classes?

You’re the curator of the Eat Your History projects (and the recent ‘Eat Your History: A Shared Table exhibition). Can you tell us a little about that?

The scope of ‘’Eat Your History’ is wonderfully wide-ranging, interpreting history and food in lots of different ways. I love the face-to-face connection with our colonial gastronomy programs which are very hands-on and interactive, and highly evocative, as they’re held in our historic spaces.

The exhibition celebrated our food and our social culture from 1788 right through to the 1950s – a veritable ‘progressive dinner’. It spoke of trials and tribulations for early settlers, social difference ‘upstairs/downstairs’ style, late Victorian middle-class dignity, working class immigrant stories in the Rocks and through the depression, to the promise of new technologies and the more relaxed lifestyle that we live today.

Being highly object and image driven, with only minimal supporting text, the exhibition was an entirely different experience for co-curator Scott Hill and myself, and for visitors. We were limited by how much we could include in the exhibition due to space constraints and the fact that the displays remain for six months – way too long for most foods to be on show. So we got creative with graphics and reenactment videos such as making jelly with calves’ feet – 1860s style.

Because our properties are so diverse, have such layered histories and so many stories to tell, our blog,The Cook and the Curator – which I co-write as ‘the Cook’ with Scott Hill – offers an ideal medium to explore themes and stories that are way too numerous to include in a museum tour or two-hour gastronomy program.

Is there anything that you have discovered through your work that may surprise people?

Where do I start? Often it’s the discovery that for all our technological developments, global connections and sophisticated tastes, the food we eat now is only a very few degrees of separation from our forebears’. Trendy foods such as kale, for instance; asparagus, artichokes, eggplants and pomegranates were growing here in the early 1800s – over 100 years before post-WWII European migrants who are credited with bringing us such delights.

It’s that ‘all that is old is new again’ thing – heirloom tomatoes in all shapes, colours and sizes, purple carrots. We’re crazy about jam making, fermenting and pickling, or curing our own meats. These were routine domestic crafts. We’re building brick pizza ovens in our backyards but this was standard procedure in most households in the 1800s, either a separate structure or built next to the kitchen fireplace.

And some people still have no idea that jelly might be made with spare parts from an animal (watch the video).

How would you describe food in colonial Sydney?

More diverse and exotic than we like to think. If anything our diet has narrowed since late Victorian times. People ate a lot more variety of meats than we do – game birds for example, duck, pigeon, turkey and quail; much more offal – lambs brains and sweetbreads, ox-tongue was on prestigious menus right up until the Second World War.

Market lists often show the hardier vegetables, so people think there was little or no salad on the table. But these were often grown in the domestic veggie garden, and don’t appear on market lists, as they’d perish too quickly without refrigeration. And don’t believe they had plain boring tastes – they were condiment crazy – mustards, spicy relishes, piquant pickles and ketchups, oyster and anchovy fish sauces that were liberally used to dress up ‘plain’ cooking styles, or cayenne pepper and curry powder added to almost everything.

Has the way we prepare and consume food evolved dramatically since then?

The significant difference is industrial food chains and the multi-cultural aspects of our modern diet – the South East Asian influences. We had the benefit of Chinese market gardeners, who provided lots of varieties of cabbages and fresh greens, but the cooking style was, we would now say, conventional; baking, stewing, roasting, and boiling – though terminology is also often misunderstood and unfair. Roasting was generally spit roasted or flame roasted in front of hot coals, stewing and boiling could mean simmering or poaching.

Industrialisation of our food systems has meant even when we cook ‘from scratch’ so much of what was done in the household has already been done for us, especially with meat and dairy products. But drinks and cordials, breads and baked goods, tinned tomatoes and fish are all very commercialised now, and much less seasonal thanks to cold-chain refrigeration and transport.

What are some of the more unusual colonial dishes or culinary practices you have encountered? Are any still eaten or used today?

Many have stayed with us, as comfort food – like pea and ham soup and corned beef – or have morphed into more glamorous forms, such as blancmange into panna cotta, prosciutto rather than salt pork. But there are lots of lost dishes that deserve to be on our tables today. I’m a big advocate for sago puddings, perfect for our summers, and funnily enough, sago is enjoying a comeback with Korean bubble drinks, or Malaysian gula Melaka (sago pudding). People are always delighted when we serve carrot pudding, studded with currants or sultanas, and ‘seed’ cake – simple pound or sponge cake with a good smattering of caraway seeds through it (giving an unexpected flavour without being sweet and a lovely textural quality).

Any favourite colonial recipes you prepare and serve regularly?

We had oxtail stew tonight, a family favourite, but I happily use wallaby tail if I come across it. Bread sauce with roast chicken or instead of a velouté sauce for corned beef. Good old ‘pork and beans’ – a nub of smoky pork neck and a couple of tins of butter beans, but I do spice them up with smoked paprika and tomatoes, which weren’t common in colonial times. Cakes and biscuits, and old fashioned, dense ginger bread made with treacle. None of it is uniquely colonial, very English traditional, which is where colonial cookery originates.