Today in Australia from paddock to plate, from seaside to riverside we have a fascination with fine food and wine.
It is fair to say we have gone completely gaga over food and wine festivals, as well as numerous television series featuring cooks and chefs.
Renowned for our fine fresh gourmet produce and with wines of world-acclaim nearly every coastal city as well as many regional cities, host food and wine festivals every year.
You can plan your visit to Victoria to suit the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, where you can taste the flavours of autumn. While at the other end of the spectrum, you can enjoy Australia’s best seafood at a feast on the Great Barrier Reef.
Digging for truffles in Western Australia, and in our national capital Canberra, are considered cuisine indulgences. Truffle hunts, master classes and cooking demonstrations by renowned chefs of truffle inspired menus are quickly booked out.
Vineyard concerts abound, especially in the Margaret River of Western Australia, the Barossa Valley in South Australia or the Yarra Valley in Victoria.
In Tasmania you can taste the harvest on the North West Coast, toast the New Year with Tasmania’s finest sparkling wine in Hobart, or enjoy the country’s entire rich harvest during Aussie Wine Month
You can join Maggie Beer’s Food Club and gain access to FREE recipes to be used as a starting point. Maggie, who is a much respected cook would be sure to agree, the simplest food lovingly prepared and executed with artistry is surely one of the greatest pleasures and pinnacles of delight in life. Especially when it’s shared with someone you love and care about.
If that is the case then eating fresh fish and chips in a cone of paper in a park would mean as much to many people as dining out in style at a great restaurant.
So have we become saturated with the science and jaded by the art attached to eating? Is it about the interaction of people in a positive way, or is it more about a matter of point scoring as a sign of status?
Just how many more ways can we all improvise on an original crème brulee? And, does it matter at all in a world where so many are struggling to even have a daily meal let alone just survive?
Preparing and procuring a meal, by making it the best we can with what is available, helps us to know life is worth living and there is a promise of better things to come.
A fascination and focus on the art of food and glories of taste and pleasures of the table, may offer many without hope that there is, and can be a future.
Problems only arise when we decide to cloak proceedings by adding rituals and rules that elevate food and its consumption, which is a biological necessity, into a celebrity spectacle.
So, where does an admiration for a passion for food end and a disapproval for a display of pomposity begin? What is our continuing fascination with food? Is it really about science and art? Or is about who we are, individually and collectively?
Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are*
Nearly two centuries ago, in the early years of the nineteenth century, Frenchman Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755 – 1826)* lawyer and politician gained great fame as an epicure.
This is a system of philosophy founded on the teaching of Epicurus 307 BC gastronome, which is about regulating the stomach where food ends up.
He derived the second of his surnames from an aunt who left him a fortune on the condition he added her name to his.
In his groundbreaking book ‘The Physiology of Taste’ published, as was customary in two volumes, Brillat-Savarin confirmed contemporary notions of the time about being civilized.
Brillat-Savarin noted ‘gastronomy is the knowledge and understanding of all that relates to man as he eats’. His sole purpose was to ‘ensure the conservation of men, using the best food possible’.
The term ‘men’ meaning humanity or humankind.
This was when the French were trying to get back on track after the horrors of the Revolution and the rout of Europe by Napoleon. Focusing on French cuisine was surely a welcome diversion.
Food in France had gone far since the days when Italian noblewoman Catherine de Medici arrived at Paris in 1533 to marry King Henry IV the Great, bringing her Italian chefs along with her.
This was a major turning point for French gastronomy as in Tuscany where Catherine came from, new ingredients and ideas about the cultivation and preparation of food meant greater variety.
Also in Italy a banquet was a political statement, with energetic dancing, theatrical entertainments, music and allegorical pageants as well as rest periods in private rooms.
Catherine dazzled the French court with captivating cuisine designed and produced by her culinary experts, including sensational sauces, iced delicacies and a wonderful new novelty, ice cream.
She encouraged the French to be civilized by teaching them to eat with a fork, instead of with their fingers.
To invite a person to your house is to take charge of his happiness as long as he is beneath your roof*
In his book published in 1825 Brillat-Savarin prattled on about the erotic properties of truffles and provided many witticism and aphorisms that could be ‘dropped’ at contemporary tables by all who embraced its pleasures.
Cuisine crossed all boundaries of culture as Brillat Savarin insisted food was a ‘civilising pleasure’ and that the pleasures of the table were in fact a science.
He influenced food writers galore, informed cooks and chefs worldwide and then reached out to have a much wider population confirm his points of view, aided by those who came after.
He was very successful.
The most indispensable quality of a good cook is promptness. It should also be that of the guests*
His was a hymn about eating our way to happiness, and it was well backed up by other authors who came after him.
This included Alexis Benoist Soyer (1810 – 1858) whose history of food and its preparation in ancient times, The Pantropheon, was published in 1853 in the United States, the United Kingdom, in Canada and as far away as Australia. Soyer was hailed by a contemporary as a ‘high authority in the science of living’.
Dashing, talented, flamboyant, Soyer was a French egocentric whose gastronomic genius became the rage and envy of mid nineteenth century England.
He was a Chef to Royalty, of a range of Restaurants and various other notables, although it would be his tenure as Chef of the Reform Club at London that would cement his fame.
Cooking is one of the oldest arts and one that has rendered us the most important service in civic life*
The Pantropheon was described by its publishers as a ‘witty cornucopia of classical food lore’ and had people rejoicing as they studied the wonders of antiquities larder. Today it still makes compelling reading.
It is a book with a ‘lofty purpose and high frivolity’, describing much about what went on in the Garden of Eden that was Paganism.
Soyer beckoned to the ancient Greeks, Romans, Assyrians, Egyptians and Jewish peoples to reveal themselves through the business of their daily lives and their ways of eating and drinking.
In The Pantropheon he recorded that Livia, consort of Roman Emperor Augustus in the first century, was 82 years of age when she said she was indebted to Bacchus, the God of Wine for her long existence.
Soyer describes wine as that ‘grateful drink’ one that draws the ties of friendship closer’ and one that all ‘honest people, all generous souls’ are eager to taste’.
His opus was made available to an even wider public than ever before because of the invention of the rotary printing press in 1833 by Richard Hoe in America, which allowed millions of copies of a page to be printed in a single day.
The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they are fed.**
It is an extraordinary work from an amazing man who once cooked breakfast for two thousand people. He became a role model for all future chefs in that despite cooking for the rich, the effete, the famous and the infamous.
He also involved himself in ‘charitable cookery’.
Soyer organized soup kitchens during the Irish famines of the 1840’s when so many fled the U.K. for the colonies. He provided soldiers at the front of the Crimean war with nourishing food collaborating with legendary nurse Florence Nightingale and her medical staff to re-organize the hospital kitchens.
His other publications included ‘A Shilling Cookery Book for the People’ published in 1855, which was ‘an entirely new system of plain cookery, and domestic economy’.
In its preface he reasons that while being ‘semi buried in my fashionable culinary sanctorum at the Reform Club, surrounded by the elite of society…I could not gain, through the stone walls of that massive edifice, the slightest knowledge of Cottage life’.
And so he embarked on a journey throughout the United Kingdom up hill and down dale, until he had learned all about the ‘domains of its industrial class, the backbone of every free country, The People’.
His journey it seems was not only most gratifying to himself but also economically very profitable.
The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity, than the discovery of a new star*
Over the nearly two centuries since Brillat-Savarin’s views on taste the social mores and self imposed rituals attached to dining have helped to develop table manners, whose history is also ancient and complex.
In the 1959 movie Ben Hur in showing his appreciation for the fine food provided by a generous host Sheik Ilderim, Judah Ben Hur is required to burp as acknowledgment.
In the west however burping was entirely abandoned by the daughter of the new Italian Ambassador to France the Marquise du Rambouillet (1558 – 1665) who established her own code of acceptable societal behaviour for those who visited her salon.
All by herself she quietly brought about a revolution and refinement of manners ensuring those who attended her salon were not only courteous to each other, but also considerate of each other’s needs and sensibilities.
She banned, spitting, farting, burping, loutish behaviour and drunkenness, refusing entry to those who would not respect her code. Within a short time she had a huge waiting list of people wanting to attend her elegant evenings and her idea was copied all over Europe in countries eager to cultivate polite society.
The mistress of the house should always be certain that the coffee be excellent; the master that his liquors be of the first quality*
In every culture and in every era since the worlds of Jean Brillat-Savarin and Alexis Soyer rules, rituals and styles of cooking have been customized to support its ideas, its attitudes and to help develop its character or identity.
In France the food revolution continued well into the 20th century, when the heavier dishes of the past were replaced by the much lighter creations, which allowed ingredients to shine.
French Master Chef Michel Guérard (1933 – ) mastered the classic techniques of cooking and pâtisserie during his tenure at the Hotel Crillon at Paris. But he became bored with all the rules and regulations. After a short sojourn in other places, he fled to the country and opened his own small restaurant, Pot-au-Feu at Asniéres, where gastronomes from Paris and all over the world flocked.
There, in the peace of the French countryside, Guérard invented Cuisine Minceur, slimming food, and perfected his Cuisine Gourmande, greedy cuisine, focusing all our eyes on the goings-on in great kitchens.
He created and communicated his ideas making his love for cooking contagious.
Instead of jealously guarding his secret recipes he shared them freely with the world, giving home cooks an opportunity to explore a power of possibilities.
Using big copper pots he kick started a culinary revolution, which included combining common sense with fabulous flavours so that we could all commit ourselves entirely to the pleasure of cooking and enjoying la cuisine enchantée.
From mastering cuisine to Master Chefs all this activity surrounding our fascination with food, says Maggie Beer ‘makes people want to get into the kitchen‘. There they can cook up a storm, look after their health and wellbeing.
If we believe Brillat’ Savarin then ‘the discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity, than the discovery of a new star’.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011-2014
* Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
**The Pantropheon Alexis Soyer