In the City of Melbourne, there were, however, a number of quite civilised eating places. From time to time a group of husbands, wives and sweethearts would go off to Menzies Hotel for a special Dinner. The ladies would wear full length dresses and the men dinner suits.
Menzies Hotel had been built in the 1867 and was a showpiece in William Street. It had had some notable clients like the Duke of Edinburgh (nineteenth century version), Dame Nelly Melba, Herbert Hoover, Alexander Graham Bell and General Douglas Macarthur. Unfortunately the hotel was demolished in 1969 to make way for a plaza. Progress.
The food and service were excellent. As it was in Australia, there was a predominance on the menu of a variety of steaks. As the Menzies was a hotel, we were able to participate in wine drinking.
If one went to an ordinary restaurant, one could take wine, suitably wrapped in brown paper and hide it under the table. The restaurant would supply glasses, but, in most, they would not even volunteer to open the bottle in case they ran foul of the law.
We did not go short of wine, we could always drink it at home, but the Australians, at that time, had this curious attitude towards it. They called it “plonk”. Some of it was plonk, but it did not take long to discover which wines were suitable and which were not.
Even in the fifties, it was possible to sample a decent wine. Most of the better wines were produced along the Murray River from Mildura into South Australia. The type of wine was governed by the original nationality of the proprietors.
Germans produced dry white wines while the French and Italians tended to produce rich red wines. These wines were, mostly, unappreciated by the Australians for whom the Amber Nectar was supreme. Later they would learn to love their own wines and so would the rest of the world.
I was introduced to the counter lunch, something I had never come across before. This was a substantial lunch that could be bought across the bar in a pub. In England we had been able to get sandwiches and crisps as a snack, but I am talking about substantial meals.
At the Chevron Hotel in Melbourne, we could go into the bar and order half a crayfish for 2/9d (16 pence). I had never eaten crayfish or lobster before and I thought the taste was wonderful. It came with a substantial salad and we could get ourselves a jug of beer and go out on the terrace where tables and chairs were laid out for the lunchtime crowd.
Drinks were cheap in Australia and on one occasion I went to the off-licence to buy a bottle of sherry. Having sampled William and Humbert’s Dry Sack, I thought I would try to find an Australian fino that would be similar.
I went into the off-licence and said to the man behind the counter. “A bottle of dry sherry please”. He produced a bottle from the shelf behind him and said “That will be five shilling and sixpence (20 pence)”. Shocked at the price I said “haven’t you got something better than that”. “Oh yes” he said and brought out another bottle “seven shillings and sixpence” (30 pence). I said “What‘s the most expensive bottle you have”. “Now you‘re talking” said he “Mildara Chestnut Teal, that’ll cost you ten shillings and sixpence” (40 pence).
I took the bottle and it was good. From then on, I always had a bottle of Chestnut Teal Oloroso in the house. It was good as an aperitif with nuts or cold chicken, but my Australian friends preferred it as a long drink with soda and ice. Not me !
One of our favourite restaurants in Melbourne was the Volga Volga. You can guess, it was Russian. I don’t think it exists any more like most of my favourite restaurants around the world.
The Volga Volga was where we first came across the phenomenon of the restaurant being unable to serve wine. At our first visit, we had to drink water. On subsequent visits we took our own wine in the brown paper bag and had it hidden under the table between pourings.
It was here that I was introduced to Chicken Kiev. What a sensation. It has been one of my favourites ever since.
In 1958, I went on a holiday trip to Sydney. There I stayed with a former international colleague. He was Mark MacDonald who had worked for Australian Movietonews. At Christmas of 1945 and 1946, he had paired up with me in London so that he, personally, sent me a food parcel. Every member of the staff of Movietonews in Sydney (and New York) got together to buy the contents of the food parcel. It was not all canned food, there were things like soap in the package. In austerity Britain, those parcels were most welcome.
Now I had the chance to meet Mark and thank him twelve years later. I stayed with him at his apartment in Bondi, and he took me out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Queen’s Park. I cannot remember the name of the place but , in any case, it is not likely that it has survived.
It was my first visit to a Chinese restaurant.
We were given the menu and the waiter immediately asked “how many ?” to which Mark replied “eight”. Shortly afterwards along came a plate of Dim Sims and a dish of soy sauce. These were for us to eat while we were mulling over the menu. What a treat !
Here’s the recipe of 1958:
1lb pork, 4 oz prawns, half a pound of minced cabbage, 1 egg, a good sprinkle of pepper, 1 tablespoon of cornflour, 2 finely chopped spring onions, half a teaspoon of salt, 2 cups of plain flour, 1 egg, water.
Mix together the flour and egg, add enough water to make a pliable dough. Roll out on a floured board until dough is paper thin. Cut into 4 inch squares. Mince the pork and squeeze out all moisture from the cabbage.
Mix together pork, cabbage, egg and place the mix on the pastry squares, then roll up the pastry between thumb and forefinger until formed into a small roll. Damp the edge with water to seal the edge of the roll. Put a prawn in the top and bottom of each roll and fold over the pastry securely.
Arrange the rolls upright in a saucepan of boiling water, packing them in well so they remain upright. Cook for 25 minutes.
Serve with a soy sauce dip.
I started with Long Soup. This consisted of chicken consommé with wantons holding strips of pork. There was also a few noodles floating on the surface.
My main course was Fried rice with eight varieties. Never heard of it ? Well, here’s the recipe from 1958:
Two and a half tablespoons of peanut oil or lard.
Three quarters teaspoon of salt,
3 eggs well beaten,
Half a cup of cooked chicken finely chopped,
Quarter cup of prawns finely chopped,
Quarter cup of lobster chopped finely,
Quarter cup of mushrooms chopped finely,
1 cup of bean sprouts,
Half a cup of finely chopped onions,
8 cups of cold boiled rice,
1 tablespoon of Monosodium Glutamate,
5 teaspoons of soy sauce,
Quarter teaspoon of pepper,
Quarter cup of finely chopped shallots.
Put oil in large hot pan. Add salt and beaten eggs, stir-fry (like scrambled eggs) until firm. Add chicken, ham, prawns, lobster and fry together 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add rice. Mix in well and fry 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add Monosodium Glutamate, soy sauce, pepper and shallots, fry 2 minutes, stirring thoroughly.
Of course Monosodium Glutamate is all the rage with Chinese cooking. In 1968 someone coined the phrase Chinese Restaurant Syndrome to describe the symptoms people were alleged to have got from eating food heavily laced with MSG. The Chinese, of course, deny that the MSG is responsible for the problem.
MSG is naturally present in tomatoes and parmesan cheese and that doesn’t seem to have caused any major problem.
Mark took me to meet a friend of his.
He was Wally Batty, like me a film editor, and Wally owned two yachts. Both yachts were anchored in Rushcutter’s Bay. One of them, “Gumleaf”, was well down in the water and looked like it might sink at any moment. Wally said that he could not afford to have it hauled out of the water for repairs.
Wally invited Mark and me for a day out on Sydney Harbour. We readily agreed.
We boarded his second yacht. Both craft were ten-metre yachts, well rigged out. Wally put a sail up and off we went out into Sydney Harbour. Trailing after the yacht was a long string which, every foot or so, was knotted round the neck of a bottle of the Amber Nectar. After a while, the bottles were cold enough to drink.
We sailed into the harbour and went with the wind, at this stage not aiming for anywhere in particular. We relaxed on board, talking about everything under the sun. When it came close to lunch time, Wally steered the yacht on a bearing that would take us to Castle Cove. Here, there was a jetty about fifty yards long where we tied up. The jetty led to the bottom of a cliff where there was a stairway to the top. It was sixty of seventy feet above the water. When we got to the top, we were confronted by a large pub (Hotel) which lay back from the cliff edge. The cliff edge had a wall which was about four feet high and, every so often, built into the wall, was a barbeque and they were all aglow.
On approaching the pub one could see that, attached to one end of the building, was a small butcher’s shop. Here one could buy steaks, lamb chops, pork chops and sausages and anything else to provide for a good barbeque. One’s choice of meat was then taken to the barbeques and cooked. A selection of spices and herbs were also on offer. Salads were also provided.
We gathered our beers and meats and proceeded to cook our own lunch. We each had a steak and some sausages and a portion of chips that also came from the ”butcher’s”. All washed down with glasses of the Amber Nectar, ice cold, freshly obtained from the pub.
After lunch, we got back on board and floated around the harbour until late, so late , the sun had gone down and there were lights on in some areas. Eventually we disembarked back at Rushcutters’ Bay. What a day.
I like brown bread and I bought a brown loaf in Melbourne. It was nothing like a Hovis and it tasted like white bread. Upon making enquiries, I discovered that, at that time, in Australia, brown bread was produced by adding caramel to the white dough. Case explained. I didn’t buy any more.
On one occasion, I went to Sydney to do some recording and they put me up in a hotel on the north side of the harbour near the bridge. I was met by a colleague at the airport and taken off to a nearby hotel for some drinks. By the time I reached the hotel, it had closed its doors and no amount of bell ringing and banging on the door would waken whoever was inside.
I got a taxi and asked to be taken to a decent hotel. The taxi driver took me to the Imperial Hotel in Oxford Street, Paddington. There I had a good sleep. The next morning I went down to breakfast. Sitting at a table for four by myself, I started to look around me and observe my fellow travellers.
At a nearby table sat a nice young lady who was about to order her breakfast. I was intrigued to hear what she would have. I was astonished when I heard.
She ordered a mixed grill of steak, lamb chops, sausage, grilled tomatoes and chips. I ordered bacon and egg quietly in case everyone was supposed to have a mixed grill. I could not believe it. Breakfast !
Next Chapter: Chapter 36: Ice Cold in Mildura