Friday, 19 February 2010

Possum moussaka and char-grilled galah?

I do possess one Greek cookbook because, as a food writer in the past I often reviewed cookbooks and this one came my way. I haven’t used it much. My preference in cooking is for French and Italian ... Greek cuisine is really very simple and therefore, to me, less interesting.

However, as part of the journey of discovery of family and Self, I have decided that I need to explore Greek cookery in general and Ithacan cookery in particular. I have ordered a cookbook produced by the Ithacan Philanthropic Society and when it arrives, I shall begin to cook my way through it.

I will be curious to see if there are any triangular shaped cheese biscuits in it. My Great-aunt Teeny made these every time we went to stay with her in Hamley Bridge, a small town nestled on the sprawling wheat plains to the north of Adelaide. It is not far from Gladstone where she grew up. These biscuits were delicious smothered in butter and I have often thought about them and never found a recipe which felt as if it might be the right one. I have asked a cousin, Barbara, who is Teeny’s grand-daughter if she or her sister Jenny might have the recipe.

Cooking dishes, which may have been my great-grandfather’s favourites will bring him closer to me in one sense at least. Then again, his favourite meal may have been fish and chips! It is highly unlikely that Mary, given the poverty and isolation of her circumstances while growing up, would have had much in the way of cooking skills. But who knows? My mother’s cooking skills were basic Anglo .... you boil and bake everything for long enough to ensure it is really, truly dead, and has no taste ... and you keep to meat, spuds and basic veg. Salad when I was growing up was iceberg served alongside sliced tomato, cucumber and onion drowning in sugar and vinegar. It didn’t taste too bad actually but I would never wish to eat it again. My mother only ever baked one thing .... Queen Cakes. These were small, plain cakes in patty pans which she made for us children. Admittedly my parents were always short of money and by the end of the week, when payday came around, there was not much left. We ate a lot of bread, including that English staple (which I loved) dripping spread on bread with salt and pepper.

No wonder my father had to sneak his exotics into the kitchen and cook them for himself. We would watch in fascination, although always refused a taste, when he grilled his eggplant or zucchini and snacked on smelly cheeses and olives from the fridge. I have no idea why we were not tempted until we grew up but perhaps by then we had all developed a greater interest in food and cooking. In fact, from the age of 11 when my mother took sick I did most of the cooking .... and loved it. But the food gene was in there for all of us kids and I like to think it came down from the Greek side.

Charlie may well have been a keen cook himself given how old he was when he got married. Did he make trahanas, a grain-based dairy soup; skordalia, a potato-based appetiser which is now so common in our supermarkets, or pasteli, a sesame seed and honey sweet? All of these things date back to ancient Greece. But Greece was a melting pot and some of the dishes which most of us recognise have been taken from elsewhere: moussaka, which I have often made and love, is originally Arabic; keftethes or meatballs, are Persian (Iranian); Pastitsio and makaronia or baked macaroni are Italian and baklavas, the honey-rich filo sweet known as yuvarlakia, are Turkish and much, much too sweet for my taste.

The Greek diet was typically Mediterranean. The ingredients commonly used were and are, olive oil, grains and bread, wine, yogurt, cheeses, fresh vegetables, fish and meats including chicken and rabbit. I don’t know if Charlie went out hunting for rabbits but I know his son and grandson did. My father supplemented our diet for a long time with rabbits. He would go out hunting rabbits with his father and brother, Laurie Simper. Laurie was Charles Vangelios’s step-son and was only small when his mother married ‘Nigger Ross’ after the death of her first husband. No doubt the nickname came from a Greek swarthiness and in this day and age would make the politically correct choke, but it would have been seen as a joke by my grandfather. They would take rifles, traps and ferrets out into the bush when they went rabbiting. The traps, enormous steel contraptions, always clanged horribly as Dad carried them to the car. They were also thick with rust. And, on the teeth, there would be small shreds of brown and white fur... vestiges of death. The ferrets lived in a cage in our back yard and had small, sharp teeth. They smelled of sour milk and I was frightened of them and hated taking my turn to clean out their cages and feed them the bread soaked in milk which seemed to be their staple.

Sometimes my father came home with a kangaroo and kangaroo tail soup was often on the table. The crazy thing was, in those days, that the rest of the animal was seen as being only fit for the dogs. These days kangaroo meat is considered a delicacy. It is very low in fat and absolutely delicious. But, for my father, the carcase was a way of bringing in some more money and we got to eat the tail as a treat.

I suspect if my father and grandfather had the skills and passion for hunting, that so did Charlie Ross. It seemed second nature to his sons and grandons. He may have had more rabbit and kangaroo on his table than chicken or beef. And, it may well have been liberally sprinkled and cooked with olives, lemons, basic, garlic, oregano and thyme .... in the Greek way. Or it may have been boiled or baked into submission in the Anglo way! Or perhaps a bit of both. We always had our rabbits roasted and when this was done properly the meat was moist and delicious; when it was done badly the meat was dry and thready.

It seems the Greek way was to use the meal table for sharing of food and sharing of conversation. I would have thought this was the sensible and civilized way. My father had inherited other ideas. Whether they came from his mother’s Scottish-Calvinist maternal side or her English-Jewish paternal side, I do not know. I am tempted to suspect it was the Scots who were to blame. Meals, as far as my father was concerned, were about eating quietly and clearing the plate. Talking was allowed sometimes but rarely encouraged. Not clearing the plate was never an option, no matter how much you hated what was on it. This attitude may well have come through generations of poverty and been fuelled by Calvinistic and Jewish economy, but it made the meal table very un-Greek indeed. More than one dinner ended up in a welter of paternal rage, maternal placating and copious childish tears.

Perhaps because of our experience, or our genes, or both, the meal tables of Charlie and Mary Ross’s great-grandchildren, at least in our family, have been very, very different .... and very, very ‘Greek.’ Lots of food, lots of laughter, lots of conversation .... in fact, a great deal of conversation and lots of jokes. The ‘goat’ would be happy I am sure.

Beyond Moussaka my Greek cuisine exploits have really been limited to Greek salad. I love olives, as do all of the siblings as well as my children and grandchildren. Then again, these days in Australia, everyone eats olives. And they eat Feta, by the bucketload. Supermarkets are awash with dozens of varieties of Feta, many if not most of them made in Australia. How far we have come. In terms of food Charlie Ross would have been much more at home in modern-day Australia than he was in his own time.

Within what we call modern Australian cuisine it is common to see Meze, appetisers served with pita bread. Things like deep fried zucchini, eggplant and peppers; dolmades- stuffed vine leaves; marides tiganites, deep-fried whitebait (although this is also very English and Belgian); saganaki, fried cheese; tyorpita, baked filo pastry stuffed with cheese; tzatziki – yogurt, cucumber and garlic dip. Tzatsiki is pretty much a staple in most fridges these days and my two grandsons have been eating it and loving it since they were babies. I did make spanakopita many years ago when my flatmate, Maureen, gave me the recipe after cooking it for her boyfriend Kon. I also made a lot of taramosalata in my time without registering it was Greek. This is a dip made of fish roe mixed with breadcrumbs. My recipe used cream cheese but traditionally it would be mixed with boiled potatoes.

Greek soups are also more common in restaurants these days no doubt because of their healthy simplicity. Trahana is a wheat-based dairy soup like porridges; Fakes is lentil soup and Fasolada is a very traditional soup made of beans, tomatoes, carrot, celery, onions, garlic and of course, olive oil. Soup would have been ideal for Charlie’s growing family because it is cheap and easy to make and goes a long way. Did they have Revithia, chickpea soup; or soupa avgolemono, chicken, meat, fish or vegetable broth thickened with eggs, lemon juice and rice? They must have kept chickens. Everyone kept chickens in the early days. And they probably had a lemon tree. Lemons grow brilliantly in South Australia’s meditteranean climate, as do olive trees. The latter in fact grow like ‘weeds’ and some short-sighted councils have defined them as such. They line the roads in some parts of the State, having seeded themselves from the earliest times.

Lamb offal and tripe are also popular in Greece and may well have been on the menu, but mostly I suspect there was a bit of fish and a lot of rabbit and kangaroo, supplemented with grains and vegetables which Mary probably grew in the garden. There would have been a flour mill in Gladstone or at least in a nearby town and she would have made her own bread. They would have needed a high level of self-sufficiency. But then, however hard life may have been for Mary it could not have been harder than her childhood.

Then again, perhaps tripe was on the menu at Port Street. We certainly ate quite a bit of it as kids. Dad’s special recipe was Tripe in Batter. It may sound odd but it actually tasted quite nice. Especially, with plenty of salt and pepper. The tripe was bland, certainly, but Dad knew how to cook it so it was tender. And so do I. The key is to put it in a big pot and cover it with cold water. Bring it to the boil and then tip off the water and then cover it with fresh water and cook slowly until it is tender. Maybe Charlie and Mary fed battered tripe to their children. It would certainly have been cheaper than fish and may have reminded Charlie a little ... just a little .... of the fried squid and octopus of his childhood. There was not much chance that they were eating either of these at home. It was not until the 1960’s if not 70’s that fishermen stopped throwing squid and octopus back into the water because Australians had developed, finally, a ‘taste’ for this Mediterranean delicacy.

I can’t say that battered tripe is a recipe I have taken into adulthood but I still like tripe. My favourite recipe is made from thinly sliced tripe mixed with gently fried capsicum, onion and bacon slices mixed into a white sauce made with chicken stock and topped with creamy mashed potato.

The records show that the early settlers took on some of the eating habits of the local Aborigines but how far it went beyond eating possums and galahs, it is hard to say. The poor often had little choice and if Charlie Ross was as adventurous in his eating habits as many of his descendants are, he probably experimented with local ‘produce’ and aboriginal cooking methods. The practice of cooking meat and vegetables in a ground oven was common amongst the indigenous people.

Desert quandongs and native peaches would have been available. The Germans in the Barossa Valley, which is situated just to the south of Gladstone, used them in their streusel toppings. Native cherries and native currants were eaten fresh and turned into jelly. But there were other wild foods to be found like wild cress (lepidium ruderake) which was common in the Flinders Ranges; native cranberries (astroloma Humifusum) which liked sandier soil; bitter quandong (santalum murrayanum); the apple-flavoured muuntari (kunzeapomifera) which made delicious puddings and sourbush (leptomeria aphylla) which could be made into lemon-flavoured cordial. Many of these foods were first identified by the German botanist, Hans Herman Behr who travelled regularly with the Aborigines.

The explorer, Edward John Eyre, (1815-1901) compiled one of the most comprehensive lists of Aboriginal food. Eyre, together with his aboriginal friend Wylie, was the first man to cross southern Australia from east to west, travelling across the Nullarbor Plain from Adelaide to Albany. Eyre , who was born in England where his father was a minister came to Australia when he was seventeen years old. He went on many expeditions in South Australia, New South Wales and Western Australia combining droving sheep and cattle with exploring. Eyre was hoping to discover good sheep country and he opened up much of South Australia for settlement. .

Eyre’s list contained crayfish and other crustaceans, fish such as mallowe caught on the Coorong waterway close to the mouth of the River Murray, frogs, small marsupials, snakes, lizards, turtles, grubs, the bogong moth, termites, possums, wallabies, eggs, honey from wild bees, emus, kangaroos, geese, ducks and other birds... including swans. Whether it was something remembered from his grandfather’s days, my father came home after one hunting trip with a swan. It took all day to clean it and cook it, my mother said, and then it was completely inedible... like leather. Perhaps if it had spent a few hours in an aboriginal earth oven it might have tasted better.

It was the missionaries who recorded in detail the cooking habits of Aborigines. In his notebooks the missionary C.G. Teichelmann wrote:

Since wood is scarce in this region, a kind of dense, low growing shrub serves as pot, heathand fuel. Onto this the crayfish are thrown, the bush shoved into the fire and the crayfish arecooked. Schürmann’s description of cooking kangaroo in a ground oven, which he ate on a five-day hunting trip with Kaurna people south of Adelaide shows not only detailed observation but evident pleasure in cultural learning as well: The way in which the Aborigines make a kangaroo palatable is worthy of note ... as soon as the prey is killed a suitable spot for cooking is sought out nearby ... Then the animal is carried to this site and the most practised one sets himself to skinning it as far as the head and the greater part of the tail, which latter is cut off and singed in the fire, while another digs a hole in the earth about one and a half feet deep, a third gathers small stones and a fourth wood and lights a firein the hole in which the stones are heated until they glow. By the time the fire has burned down, the butcher has already gutted the animal, cut off the legs and thighs and cut three slits in the thick flesh of the rump; meanwhile another has cleared the large intestines and with them made a sausage with the blood accumulated in the chest cavity. Now the stones are drawn out by the fire and the smaller ones inserted partly in the breast and bowel cavities and partly in the slitted rump, mixed with the foliage of a small gum tree as spice. Next the kangaroo is laid on the coals in the hole while twigs of the above-named tree are spread underneath as well as over it; in those on top of it, the legs, the tail, the sausage together with the vital organs are placed, and the whole lot covered with the remaining glowing stones. In the meantime a man has removed a piece of bark from a nearby tree, big enough to cover the kangaroo from its head to its tail; the gaps between the bark and the sides of the hole are then sealed with earth so that no air can penetrate. After a comfortable rest of an hour, the pit is opened and a clean, delicious tasting grilled meat drawn out.”

Farming families in South Australia certainly used these methods in the years when Mary Atkins was growing up in the Wirrabarra Forest. Whether it was something she and Charlie Ross did in Gladstone I cannot know. But Europeans had pots and these were such useful items they were not likely to be discarded in favour of ground ovens.

There was a wealth of seafood to be had including oysters but I am not sure Charlie Ross would have transported many of these more ‘fragile foods’ from Port Pirie to Gladstone, particularly in midsummer. But these delicacies would no doubt have made their way to the shop during cold, crisp winters. Was there a plate of fat, fresh oysters drizzled with sourbush juice and topped with chopped, wild mint on the table some nights? I like to think so.

The diet may well have been much more varied than one might suppose and Mary’s cooking skills may have been tested in ways which we can only imagine. She was not likely to have cooked snake or lizard but I bet she cleaned more than one galah and possum in her time. Moussaka made with minced possum or kangaroo? Char-grilled galah instead of char-grilled quail? Yum!

The early settlers were nothing if not innovative. They took, no doubt by necessity, the Chinese view that if it moves, you eat it! Emus, mutton birds, bandicoots, echidnas, bats, foxes ....were all on various menus across the Australian continent.

Australia’s first cookbook appeared in 1864. It was written by a Hobart landowner and member of the Tasmanian Parliament Edward Abbott (1801–1869), The English and Australian Cookery Book: Cookery for the Many, as well as the ‘Upper Ten Thousand’ was something of an eclectic mix with more than its fair share of edible oddities.

One early cookbook had this recipe for Slippery Bob, a dish made with kangaroo brains:

"Take kangaroo brain and mix with flour and water to make into a batter; well season with pepper and salt, then pour a tablespoon full at a time into an iron pot containing emeu fat and take them out when done."

It was probably delicious. My father also loved brains but then there was really nothing he would not eat. He thought the comb from the chicken was worth chewing and the ‘parson’s nose,’ the chicken’s ‘bum’, was always his favourite bit. I like to think his adventurous eating habits came down from Charlie the Greek and while it may all be fancy on my part, the fact is, he also had a habit of taking olive oil by the tablespoonful which says the Greek genes had to be at work. That, and his habit of sucking lemons.

When I was a young child olive oil was something you bought from the chemist and a small bottle was always kept in the cabinet beside our front door. It was clearly medicinal and had no place in the kitchen. We used dripping to cook with in those days and I still think there is no other way to bake a potato than in dripping or goose or duck fat. Olive oil has however come of age with a vengeance. These days there is not likely to be an Australian household which does not have a bottle or three of olive oil in the pantry. And, Australia has become a big producer of olive oils ranging from the basic to the boutique and supermarkets offer not one small bottle of choice but dozens from olives grown around the country.

How much things have changed in the 120 years since Charlie and Mary first set up home together. I am determined to make a trip to Gladstone when I am next in South Australia to see the shop and the homes where Charlie and Mary lived and perhaps to find, in one or other of the backyards, an olive or a lemon tree. Well, perhaps an olive tree. The lemon would not survive the years but the olive would.

The olive is one of my favourite trees and I have planted a grove on our farm in the Adelaide Hills. There is something quintessentially Greek about the olive. Athena, who is my favourite Greek Goddess, brought the olive to the Greeks as a gift. Zeus had promised to give Attica to the god or goddess who came up with the most useful invention. Athena's gift of the olive, useful for light, heat, food, medicine and perfume was chosen as a more peaceful and useful invention over Poseidon's horse, which served only one purpose, as an instrument of war. Athena planted the original olive tree on a rocky hill that is known today as the Acropolis. The olive tree that grows there today is said to have come from the roots of the original tree. Olives are known to live for centuries and some, over a thousand years. What I like about them is that they have a misshapen, gnarled beauty and they thrive in challenging conditions. There is a noble strength to the olive and an independent beauty, no matter how old and weathered they may be. It is one of the oldest known cultivated trees with olives having been found in Egyptian tombs dated to 2,000 BC.

And the olive does not offer its gifts easily. One must work for the fruit of the tree. Fresh olives are unbearably bitter and inedible and even the birds will not touch them. They must be cured in brine before they can be eaten. At which point, they are of course, delicious.

I don’t think any Greek could survive without olives and am sure that somewhere in the Ross kitchen there was a big jar or tin of them. Perhaps Charlie Ross also had his small bottle of olive oil which he drank by the spoonful as an aid to his health. I do not know how robust his health was but he did die at the age of 58 from heart failure and asthma, from which the death record states, he had suffered for two years. His grand-daughter Flora , who was, I am told, the ‘spitting image’ of him, also suffered greatly from asthma but she lived into her eighties.

Many years spent on board ship may well have compromised Charlie’s health although the sea air may have helped his asthma. Not that the men in the Ross family appear to have had longevity. Charles Vangelios died at in Adelaide in 1955 at the age of 63 and his son, my father, Sydney Charles died in 1980 at the age of 55. Charlie Ross’s son got five more years and his grandson got three years less.

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