It was very early on that I learned the secrets of ensuring that scones would rise high and melt in your mouth, as well as making sponges that were light and luscious from my Nana, who was a great plain cook.
Going to Dover Heights Home Science High School helped me to broaden a foundation of basic knowledge of culinary delights to build on, in a world fast progressing following World War II from rationing to riches.
The first lesson was all about cleaning saucepans. Our teachers were wanting to ensure that the next generation’s feet stayed firmly planted on the ground.
When we did get around to cooking meals those we made were mostly taken from the ‘Commonsense Cook Book’, which was, and still is an excellent guide for beginners.
At the time though for a teenager it seemed to me to be all so boring, basically because my Mum and Nan had already taught me all the things that were in it.
However it didn’t stop me giving my three sons a copy to help them survive when they left home during the ‘90’s to make their own way in the world and it’s still in all their kitchens today.
When I left high school and went out into the wider world myself, my passion for learning about and enjoying culinary delights did not abate, but only grew stronger.
Most young people and celebrity chefs today would find it hard to believe that attending demonstrations of cooking at the gas company and electricity company, both government run institutions, were the only type of cooking classes on offer during the 60’s at Sydney, but they were and I attended those as well.
When we moved to live in the northern districts of Sydney in 1968 other experiences opened up, as a growing number of restaurants emerged gradually onto the Sydney social scene. 1968 was a pivotal year for many new experiences.
It was the year my first son was born and the year that Margaret Fulton published her now famous The Margaret Fulton Cookbook, which was an instant success.
Margaret was a ‘Godsend’ she encouraged the Australian women of her generation to look beyond the English staple of ‘meat and three veg’ that we all knew about and become far more creative. She gained a legion of followers, including me.
From the 50’s to the 70’s as Italians flocked from Europe to Australia we began flocking too, but the other way, abroad to Europe and England.
We were leaving in our droves wanting to explore the wider world as it began opening up to tourism, which was made more possible by the magic of jet flight. Eating your way around each country region tasting the local cuisine and drinking the local wines was the best way to do it. Sightseeing was secondary.
We discovered the cuisine and flavours of captivating cafe’s and casual eateries all along the Italian and French Riviera, and in the mountains of the Luberon. There was delicious Pasta at Tuscany, Pizza at Arezzo and scrumptious Pork and Veal at Rome.
You could sit on the beach at Nice and indulge in fabulous pastries, enjoy superb coffee for breakfast, all the while taking in the sight of topless sunbathers, unheard of back home.
Will never forget the American gent at the next table to us in Nice who asked for ‘Steak Tartare, well done’.
Lunch at the Auberge du Pere Bise on Lac Annecy in France near the Swiss border was another entirely memorable experience. After driving across the alps where the trees were looking stunning in autumnal dress, then sitting looking out over the lake toward the mountains, whose tips were still just covered in snow, was not only a picturesque storybook experience, but also as it turned out, a culinary delight as well.
They were, and are still famous for their dessert trolley. Not really sure now just how I retained my size 10 figure for all those years in those days. Is it any wonder most of these amazing eating places in Europe and England have rooms to stay in overnight.
Eating all afternoon, wonderful cuisine, superbly attentive waiters with just the right touch, and the cheeses, the pastries and the cakes.
These were offered on a trolley that was wheeled around allowing you to choose what you would like while you took in the stunning view across the Lake to the Alps. The only way to describe the experience would be to say WOW.
Then there was the excellent experience of dining in the fabulous Lalique glass decorated dining car aboard the Orient Express. It was a culinary celebration journey for a friend’s 40th birthday, tacked on to the end of a conference in Amsterdam and going from Paris to London.
From the mid 1970’s to the end of the first decade of the twenty first century, I have to say many memorable meals have been eaten and some simply fabulous wines have been drunk.
Writing about them now will more than likely scare me to death and give me even more of a reason to keep up my brisk one-hour walk each day over the hill, along the river and in Melbourne’s beautiful botanical gardens.
I dare not venture the other way, because I live at South Yarra, which is packed with fabulous and stylish eateries.
In the late 70’s outside Sydney on a lovely stretch of the Hawkesbury River, the Berowra Waters Inn became a central pivot of Sydney’s dining in style evolution.
To enjoy their sensational cuisine meant a long drive, or a short flight in a flying boat – definitely the glamour option.
The Bayswater Brassiere opened at King’s Cross and together these two brilliant eateries gained a reputation for being great training grounds for emerging young artist chefs.
In Sydney’s eastern suburbs The Bay Tree at Woollahra was where you went if you wanted to collect an amazing array of French cooking ware, or take a class. At Mosman on the north shore Accoutrement, another new wave kitchen shop also started a cooking school.
As it expanded so did participants incredible experiences and its reputation. Especially when they started wheeling in chefs who were well on their way to celebrity status.
Planning your ‘at home’ dinner party became a rich experience.
All the time I was eating out I was also catering for my family with hundreds of business dinners, kindergarten and school fundraisers, as well as art and antiques openings.
Working for social profit on the Black and White Committee for the Royal Blind Society and on The Red Cross Red Ribbon Committee for International Red Cross, meant that I was constantly designing, co-ordinating and producing special events in major city hotels, spectacular venues or people’s homes. One of the most memorable was a luncheon for 700 people at the Wentworth Hotel in Elizabeth Street, Sydney.
These fund raising events always evolved around a fabulous meal with just the right wine, chosen to complement the food. Co-ordinating the events, and attending wine appreciation classes helped me to hone my skills for designing menus that were well received.
Hosting such events also assisted me to understand and appreciate diplomacy and the importance of all sorts of cultural connections and relationships.
Consul General’s wives were also Vice Presidents of the Red Cross Red Ribbon Committee. Part of my role was to look after political guests and the Queen’s representative from time to time. I was only in my late twenties when all this started so it was a once in a lifetime experience that stood me in great stead as the year’s rolled by.
Gaining an understanding of protocol and procedures as dictated by the Premier’s office at the time, helped me to master the technique of introducing people, by starting a conversation going between them, before moving onto the next guest.
It certainly helped to boost people’s self esteem, made them feel relaxed and helped give those who were very nervous enough confidence to proceed. It was all about ensuring a great result for all.
Creating win win situations for everyone was the order of the day during the 80’s and 90’s in both professional and personal life. How wonderful it has been to enjoy so many rare and special culinary delights and amazing occasions with so may extraordinary people.
Excellent eating experiences abroad were made possible because growing business in Australia, following World War II, meant making lasting international connections.
This also meant attending the best event ever. The annual International Conference.
It was all about expanding business and its influence both rapidly and globally was profound.
International conferences helped to found the tourist industry after the war, and to link cultures and communities all around a world so that they could start community conversations.
The world was fast getting back on its feet and economies were beginning to boom once more and building trade relationships were important to ongoing stablity.
It also seemed a shame to both of us to go all that way and not take time out to learn about and experience other cultures and their cuisine first hand. So each year the adult annual holiday in our household was added onto the conference trip. It certainly helped me to grow my knowledge of the arts and today I can still visual the many places I have visited.
Travelling to London during the first half of the 70’s for the first time for an Aussie girl of only 28 years with three sons, who had grown up quietly during the 50’s in a beach side suburb at Sydney, was quite daunting. As was sitting down to dinner with the Lord Mayor of London in his home at the time, Mansion House.
At least my darling Nana and legendary Aunt Ivy had taught me how to deal with all the linen and cutlery, for which I was always very grateful.
We knew before we left what was going to happen and so it was very exciting.
Having prepared myself to some point, by reading a great deal, and asking a few older mentors for advice, nothing really prepares you for your first reality experience of London, or its much denied class system.
It was in play then, and still is now no matter how conciliatory it can sometime seem.
Seated at one dinner at the Savoy Hotel between heads of major banking institutions and opposite two Lords meant a rapid learning curve in mastering the art of small talk.
I will never forget being asked by one very imperious man, (no gentleman) … and ‘what do you do in Australia’. When I explained quietly that I was currently studying Australian, English and European decorative arts…as part of my interior design business he replied at the top of his voice, ‘good God, culture in the colonies’!
However critics like to take us down these days the generation after the war certainly helped to open up world trade and to grow landmark businesses locally, regionally and internationally.
Where would Australia be without the huge influx of immigration and the important culinary and cultural contribution they made to growing the wine and food industries in this country, especially in the Barossa, Hunter Yarra Valley and Margaret River regions, and the 80’s.
Our three boys stayed at home during their formative years and had fun with my bridesmaid and her husband who moved in, bringing their two daughters. It was good for my boys because it helped them learn to socialize with the girls, who became like sisters.
They also began developing their own cooking skills and passion for culinary delights as my friend was also a great cook. They learned how to bake during my absence, and the sense of achievement was always strong when we arrived home to indulge in a new cake or cookie creation together.
We were always a family who sat down at the table for dinner.
I simply cannot understand or fathom parents who do not want to share their children’s day and enjoy that precious time with them. Eating together is a sacrament.
Life is all too short. They grow up so quickly and it’s an important part of teaching children how to communicate with others, especially people older than themselves.
Two of my much older sisters lived in England from the late 40’s until the late 70’s. One could say that I was encouraged to have a keenly developed interest in that country from when I was a small child, probably far more than most other people that I know.
My life included writing letters ‘home’ to England on a weekly basis. So communicating with each other in our household, despite the distance, was important. Food parcels were packed often and sent to London during rationing years until their food industry began to boom as well and riches once more abounded.
It is no surprise that until I left school and went to work in Australia that I believed I was English. It had helped that we saluted the flag at school every morning and sang God Save the Queen. We were also taught to keep to the left on the footpath and on the stairs, and numerous other English customs. And, we grew up eating English cuisine, with meat and three veg the staple.
Families who had been transported to Australia were struggling to keep the links to their homeland going for a very long time, through keeping their cultural traditions going and memories alive.
This is not exclusive to English cultures, but indeed most cultures who find themselves refugees or immigrants far from home.
My Nan was English on one side and a ‘Cameron’ on the other, so being a fierce Scot was an integral part of her persona.
My two sisters who lived in England well remember the dreaded pea-soup style fogs that used to engulf post-war London, when they worked there, cloaking it in darkness. Being caught out in the street in one could be a terrifying event. The yellowish thick smog was dreadful pollution from factories using coal, and it stank as well as being dank.
The Great Smog of 1952 was one of the worst. With 4,000 deaths reported over a couple of days, later numbers put the dead more realistically at 12,000. The terrible toll led to achieving a quick passage for the Clean Air Act of 1956 through British parliament. It banned the use of coal for domestic fires in urban areas and throughout the 60’s life, health and well -being for all rapidly improved.
From always having to remain indoors to eat in England people started following the European example of moving out into the garden or part of the street.
The numbers were small at first, then swelling to how we find it today. From eating pies, fish and chips and meat and three veg, Londoners started enjoying many different exotic cuisines, while their own was re-invented by a whole new breed of young star quality chefs.
In very swish café’s or local restaurants at Chelsea or Shepherd’s Market, they began their rise to gain celebrity status.
From the early 70’s onward I came and went quite regularly and during that time watched London go from dark and dingy, to a gloriously glowing vibrant city clean, refreshed and ready to face the 21st century.
Some of the chefs became so famous that actors Robert Morley, George Segal and Jacqueline Basset teamed up to make the marvelous fun movie Who’s Killing the Great Chefs of Europe in 1978. It was filmed in many of the best restaurants of the time, including one that was very special, La Tour d’Argent at Paris. Little did I know at the time that I would one day dine there and enjoy the art of living well.
But when you are in Rome they say you should do as the Romans do and so we did. On the Via Veneto we sat with very dear friends, drinking copious cups of frothy coffee and spending hours people watching.
The coffee in Italy at that time was certainly not weighed down by chocolate, but topped with such a light, full, fluffy and fabulous froth you quite literally had to sink through in order to reach the richly roasted flavoured coffee at the bottom of the cup.
It was quite unbelievable, and completely delicious. And just one would never do.
This was a time when rich American ladies of a certain age could be caught cruising up and down this stylish boulevard on the arm of a stunningly handsome young northern Italian gigolo. You knew they were northern because they were so tall and devastatingly good looking, descending from the tall elegant lean and very cool Etruscans as they do.
Down south is a different story. Descendants of the ancient Greeks, who settled Campania in colonial times, the boys their have flashing dark eyes and a very passionate outgoing nature.
Cougar was not a word that had come into the English vocabulary of the time, except in reference to a lovely cat in the jungle. Just watching them all being so happy made my best friend and I hopeful that perhaps it was about changing attitudes.
We wanted discrimination and hypocrisy to end. We hoped that one day it would be okay for an older woman to be in society with a younger man as easily as it was for an older man to be out and about with a young woman. After all to our minds it was hard enough to find love in the world, not to cherish it when it actually does happen.
At the time though, one was a scandal, the other a societal norm.
The Via Veneto was oh so very stylish. After all this is where Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn enjoyed meeting in his outside dining room in Roman Holiday.
His apartment didn’t even have a kitchen, which for ordinary Australians at the time seemed almost entirely unbelievable. As he pointed out to her, out there was where it was all happening. And indeed it was.
We didn’t catch a wink of sleep in the eternal city. Just think to live like that meant you didn’t ever have to shop for, or store food, and you could choose just what you felt like at the time. Culinary freedom.
The Italians had led the western world with its Renaissance of humanist ideals and we had eagerly followed. But on this issue, well it seems amazing that nearly forty years on we are still building kitchens when we could be having better living conditions and supporting food commercially just as the Pompeians had prior to the eruption of 79AD.
At that time Roman cities had take-away food establishments on virtually ever street corner, and everyone took their own bowls with them to choose from the food of the day.
Cooking with olive oil was another discovery. We just couldn’t believe the taste, which was more than heavenly. Back home at the time olive oil was only obtainable in small bottles for medicinal purposes in a Chemist shop. It was certainly not something you cooked with. Heaven forbid.
Italians were now flocking to Australia in giant numbers, looking for a new way of life. They may have thought Australians were a weird mob, but they set out to educate us by bringing the food, wine and culture of their homeland to Australia, as the English before them.
They planted a whole new array of vegetables, vines for wine and gorgeous olive trees in groves for olive oil production.
They would eventually forever change the way that we lived and the food we ate.
When you add the Asian contribution into this milieu, with just a touch of French cuisine as well, then the future looked very bright indeed.
Asia was on our doorstep and Hong Kong a doorstop on the way to Europe where culinary delights abounded.
There was a truly memorable dinner at Margeaux in the Peninsular Hotel where good manners and grace abounded.
The annual European conference, took us to some truly marvelous places. Paris, Brussels, Vienna, Munich and Amsterdam are all cities that will long stay in my memory, although the memories are not just about culinary delights.
Vienna is one of those cities that takes over your soul.
Its turbulent history is all around you, revealed in its architecture and the rich rituals of its residents and the horses dancing at the Spanish Riding School. Eating Sacher Torte while watching a waltz by Strauss in a park is a particular pleasure.
I always loved the stylish way espresso coffee was served on a small tray with a glass of water and light luscious wafer to tempt the palette. Austria was truly gracious, the place where the sound of music always enriched your eating experience.
From Vienna to Salzburg staying and eating by the lake at Fuschl when staying in an old Archbishop’s hunting lodge, or enjoying a pint at The White Horse Inn on a misty day as a solo violinist played music by Camille Saint Seans, are memories that linger long.
Munich was always the surprise, where people elegantly dressed glided up the Max-Joseph-Platz to the opera, and afterward enjoyed culinary delights at The Bristol.
The idyllic Baroque and Biedermeier style atmosphere was soaked up by its most famous opera house singers and directors, including Gustav Mahler and Herbert von Karan.
Amsterdam was powerful and moving, because I had read the Diary of Anne Frank when I was 13, an age when such tragedy is absorbed into your DNA.
It seemed at odds to me sitting with friends alongside Singel canal enjoying the sun, laughter, cuisine and company.
On one of the days dear Jeannie, an English friend sensitive to my thoughts because we had been to visit the Anne Frank House together the day before, leaned over and touched me to say words to the effect…
‘Carolyn they died so we might live, we must honour them by doing so’.
She and her husband were both wise and wonderful, taking us to Amsterdam and back from England in their fabulous old Rolls Royce.
It was one of those with the delightful crystal flower holders inside, which she always filled with lily of the valley or roses.
Arriving in that glorious old car for the main conference dinner in a castle by driving over its drawbridge will long remain in all our memories.
We had many adventures in it and when it broke down, everyone would come to the rescue such was the love for old cars in England.
The Capital Hotel was founded in 1971 nearby to Harrods’s at Knightsbridge. It was a great modern experience to stay in, and eat at. Sleek and stylish, its restaurant exuded elegance while being contemporary of its time. It was entirely opposite to the sometimes overwhelming tradition at The Savoy on the Strand, which had also been revamped.
The Savoy’s famous Grill was always fabulous, and the huge fat juicy lightly grilled fresh figs they served at breakfast in the mornings will probably always remain my most memorable meal ever.
Sitting there enjoying them each morning it seemed such a long way to have traveled from my school in search of culinary delights and, in just little over a decade.
Back here in Australia everything was changing rapidly too and the only thing to do was go with the flow.
Eating in, or ‘at home’ was always a special event. None more so than when you were cooking for people you loved and cared about. It was all about as my Mum and Nan would have said, having a sense of occasion.
My three sons loved these events, and would all help to both set and clear the table. They still do today, gathering together at Xmas always evokes memories of those special times.
One of the most memorable of my dining in culinary delight experiences was hosting a 40th birthday luncheon party for a dear friend, taking place on the day of all day’s, Black Friday 13th.
A ‘Black Cat’ Cake to celebrate was the only way to go. Everyone turned up wearing cat masks, and a fun time was had by all.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011- 2014