July 2007

The Nation Reviewed

The big cheese

By Gay Bilson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In 1837 Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, ordered that a 1400-pound cheese be placed in the foyer of the White House for those who were hungry and voiceless. The cheddar cut at the traditional welcome for the well-fed and empowered participants in the 15th Symposium of Australian Gastronomy was, give or take a few, a handsome 50 kilograms. It had been maturing in St Helens, in north-eastern Tasmania, for two years and turned up at most of the meals during the three-day symposium held in the tiny town of Dover, in the state's south-east.

Despite its size, it wasn't the cheese which stole the show. The Southern Star apple, an old Dover variety, is not available commercially but was here by the boxful. Picked the day before the symposium began, this apple was a revelation of juice, fruit sugar and crunch. There were local abalone and crayfish; the shells of the latter were used in a rich stock absorbed by rice in a dish called paella but in truth a risotto. It was made in a huge cast-iron pan knocked up by a local smithy especially for the event, and I don't think he cared whether it was pilaf, biryani, risotto, paella or rice-and-shellfish stew. The crayfish legs were thrown into the aromatic mess of rice near the close of cooking. The tail meat filled sandwiches for a simple lunch on a Port Esperance jetty. We ate pies filled with local beef, venison and scallops. In fact, the only food that had travelled  far was the celebratory cheddar.

In 1982 the food writer Michael Symons proposed a semiformal gathering where good talk and good food would make the companionable table fellows they are meant to be, a conference where the formal presentation of papers would be neither more nor less important than the food. The Symposium of Australian Gastronomy met for the first time in convivium in 1984.

Each symposium addresses a theme, and that first one investigated ‘The Upstart Cuisine', a description which I reckon still holds today when describing the new Australian cooking, where we learn from the top down and fiddle with the cuisines of others. The final banquet was the responsibility of Phillip Searle, then a relatively unknown chef. With Cheong Liew he produced a remarkable menu and interactive performance to which all future symposium banquets would be indebted. Silent commedia dell'arte clowns subversively served us to our faces, rather than creeping up from behind. One was a little-known actor named Geoffrey Rush.

Gastronomy was first defined by the Frenchman Brillat-Savarin in the early nineteenth century as "the reasoned comprehension of everything connected with the nourishment of man", and more recently not quite defined by the Australian academic Barbara Santich as "lying at the confluence of the intellect and the senses". We used the word to raise the stakes, to push away the pejorative label of ‘foodies'. Now that Food Studies has as much cachet as Calamity Physics in universities perhaps the symposium might take a friendlier title, but tradition holds, just as it does at the table. Cookery, like all the crafts, is deeply and necessarily conservative, even when sauces turn to foam.

This symposium addressed the gastronomic poverty brought about by supermarkets, and we met for the first time in Dover's general store. Geoffrey Trueman, now in his nineties, had worked there in the early 1940s. He stood frail on a sturdy fruit crate and told us all about his job. One customer used to ask for "One pound of bacon, please. That's sixteen slices."

The formal papers were presented in the community church, and one session addressed local history. We know that the French navigator Bruni D'Entrecasteaux, who explored the region in 1792, ordered a garden be created at Recherche Bay, and we know what was planted: potatoes, sorrel, cabbages, radishes, celery and cress. Little is left of the garden, except for a few broken stone borders and a strong local push for heritage listing. The sailors' daily rations included a handful of raisins and half a pound of bread, garlic, salt beef and dried peas; their wine was undrinkable by the time they reached what is now called the D'Entrecasteaux Channel. In their culinary ignorance, the French explorers presented brandy and bread to the first Aboriginal people they encountered.

The only session to directly address the symposium-appointed ogre included an academic view of the supermarket as a version of utopian standardisation and the notion of capitalism as cannibalism. It brought to mind Emile Zola's 1883 novel Au Bonheur des dames (The Ladies' Paradise), a portrait of the voracious appetite of the first Parisian department stores and their seduction of the public away from the city's small, specialist purveyors.

The final banquet was held in a privately owned shed. We nibbled on steak tartare, thinking little of that choice until the doors of the shed were opened. The table was a paddock. Grass, smelling richly of soil, covered the entire surface. Tufts and mounds had been artfully created. Mushrooms sprang from the paddock and apples were strewn about.

This living tablecloth was in part a response to the one at the 1993 final dinner for the seventh symposium, in Canberra. We, the kitchen staff at Berowra Waters Inn restaurant, had made a tablecloth of raw tripe, the pieces sewn together with sausage casing. The dinner was my homage to the body, to meat, and its only hiccup was the necessary substitution of pig's blood for my own. The menu read: Stomach, Egg, Flesh, Bone, Skin, Blood, Heart, Milk, Fruit, Virgins' Breasts, Dead Mens' Bones. The tablecloth was removed before the meal began.

This one was less wet and smelt better. We grazed on the meat from one well-tended animal which had grazed on the paddock to the east of the shed. It had been slaughtered, hung and butchered locally. Later we ate a goat cheese which had been made from the milk from goats which grazed on the paddock to the west of the shed. I sat next to the woman who had milked the goats and made the cheese. She had once been an intensive-care nurse, a nice qualification. The cheese was perfect - not too salty, not too goaty.

From the fillet which had been used for the beef tartare we moved to the boned tail, stuffed with the tongue and braised to gelatinous tenderness. This dish was the highlight of the meal, indeed of the entire symposium. Boning an oxtail is like unpicking complex embroidery. The central course was a pot-au-feu, brought from paddock to paddock on huge platters made by a local potter. It was as unrefined as the oxtail had been haute cuisine. We enjoyed the lot and licked our plates clean. After the goat cheese, a tiny apple pudding settled into a puddle of Jersey cream. One wine was remarkable. The meal had been served from the same caravan kitchen which had been hired for the entire symposium, catering to all meals, simple and complex.

This banquet, an antidote to the supermarket, was another example of the debt chosen cooks owe to the symposia, and the debt the symposiasts owe to the cooks. Competition over skills and imaginative acts is not the point. A stretch had been made because it had been expected, had precedents, excited the cooks, and the audience was as close to perfect as it might be. The food media, which turns cooking and eating into something to be watched, is so uninterested that it doesn't have to be actively discouraged from attending.

What struck me above all about this symposium was that where once the papers and the discussions were entirely separate from the meals, at Dover there was deliberate cohesion and cross-commentary. As well, the growers and producers were given a voice and invited to the table. Thinking and producing and cooking became one, and it just might be a sign that we are growing up, less upstarts than thoughtful consumers. In a similar way, drought and disappearing water reserves push us to remember that our food, even from the supermarket, comes originally from the land.

Gay Bilson
Gay Bilson is a writer, literary critic and former Sydney restaurateur. Her books include Plenty: Digressions on Food and On Digestion.

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