Food History Friday: British tastes go Down Under

Fruits from the Bush (photo from Wikipedia)

For thousands of years, Aboriginal Australians lived off of the plants and animals native to Australia: Kangaroo, wallaby, emu, lizards and snakes were hunted for their meat, and local nuts, fruits and honeys were widely available. But for the British immigrants, who landed in Botany Bay in 1788 to form a penal colony, these foods were foreign and barbaric. The British saw the natives and their diet as primitive , and quickly set about introducing European crops and animals to which their palette was more accustomed. They imported sheep and cattle (which later gave rise to the booming Australian beef industry), rabbit and deer for hunting, flour for bread, and later, sugar. But the process of importing and introducing new foods was a long, arduous and expensive one. In the meantime, the colonists lived on rations brought with them from England. This post from The Old Foodie lists all the rations provided to each free colonist (notice that each one is given a weekly allotment of not only staples, like bread and meat, but also stranger things like raisins, vinegar, and mustard).

The few native ingredients that the colonists did use were those which could be most easily adapted to traditional British recipes. Bush berries and even some kinds of cacti were made into jam for jam tarts, and shark was substituted for salmon in baked fish dishes. As the number of cattle grew, the price of beef and dairy products fell, allowing the lower classes to incorporate them into their diet.

Victorian-era extravagance comes to Australia’s tea time. Photo from The Cook and the Chef.

By the late 1800s, Australian cuisine had begun to establish itself. New dishes, generally in the British tradition but invented in Australia, became popular, such as Carpetbag Steak (also sometimes called Pocket Steak). Instead of trying to mask local foods or adapt them to be more like their British counterparts, tropical ingredients like coconut, macadamia nut and kiwi became dominant flavors that defined the new Australian cuisine.

For more information on Australia’s culinary history, visit the Cambridge World History of Food, the Food Timeline, and The Old Foodie. To read about the later impact of Asian immigrants and their food on Australia’s cuisine, visit ABC TV’s The Cook and the Chef.

Carpetbag Steak & Mushrooms with Mustard Butter from Cuisine:

Mouthwateringly-delicious looking carpetbag steak from Cuisine.co.nz

SERVES: 6
Quick smart ideas from Ray McVinnie200g butter, softened but not melted
4 tablespoons wholegrain mustard
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leafed parsley
salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 x 150g eye fillet of beef steaks cut from the middle of the fillet, all fat and sinew removed
12 fresh oysters
12 rashers rindless streaky bacon
12 Portobello mushrooms, stalk cut flush with the cap
olive oil for brushing
6 x 2cm-thick slices French bread, toastedWhip the butter until pale and fluffy, whip in the mustard and parsley, taste and season. Refrigerate until needed.
Cut a cavity in the side of each steak along its equator and push 2 oysters inside each. Wrap a rasher of bacon around the equator of each steak and pin it in place with a toothpick.

Brush the steaks and the mushrooms with olive oil, season well and barbecue until the steaks are medium and
the oysters hot (around 4 minutes each side), and the mushrooms are tender.

Place each steak on a croûton, top with a spoonful of mustard butter and serve two mushrooms alongside.
Good with a green salad.

Food History Friday: The Moorish influence on Spain’s culinary history

Spain has one of the most interesting culinary traditions in the world. Its geography and history have given it an incredibly diverse and distinctive cuisine, with unique combinations of flavors and ingredients not found in any other country. The endless stretches of coastline provide ample seafood, and its fertile farmland produces a wealth of crops and animals (most notably the pigs for Spain’s famous hams). The Greeks and Romans brought the use of olive oil to the nation, and European Christian immigrants brought many breads and cakes used in religious rituals. But the group that had the greatest impact on the food of Spain came from much farther away: the Moors.

Medieval Moorish knights. Image from Wikipedia.

Originally hailing from what is now Morocco and western Algeria, the Moors were Muslims (and later Islamics) who migrated to Spain, Portugal and parts of Italy during the early Medieval period. They were not a single ethnic group – rather, the term “Moor” was used by Europeans to refer to anyone of Arabic descent. They occupied much of Spain during the Middle Ages, first conquering Spanish kingdoms in the 8th century CE. In 1212 CE, a group of Christian kings from the north and east banded together to force the Moors out and reclaim Spain. The movement was called the Reconquista, and lasted for almost three centuries. The Moorish kingdom Granada was the last to fall, finally surrendering in 1492 (yes, the same year the Spanish crown funded Columbus’s trip across the ocean blue – hey, it was a big year for Spain).

But despite being driven out of Spain, the influence of the Moors continued. To this day, their impact can be seen in everything from the medieval architecture to the language (Al-hambra, for example, is a Moorish word). Of course, the strongest impact they left was on Spain’s cuisine.

Dried fruits and spiced nuts on display at a market in Barcelona.

Dried fruits and spiced nuts on display at La Boqueria, a market in Barcelona.

Many of Spain’s most characteristic flavors come directly from the Moor’s northern African palate. Most notably, the Moors brought many spices (the most significant and frequently used being saffron, cumin, cinnamon and coriander), fresh fruits (chief among them was citrus, particularly oranges and lemons), dried fruits, honey and nuts (particularly almonds).  They used fruit in savory dishes, as opposed to the European tradition of reserving them for desserts. Finely ground nuts were substituted for flour, giving baked goods a more complex flavor and denser texture. They also brought new grains, such as couscous and rice, to what had previously been a flour-and-wheat driven cuisine.

Here’s a recipe for kebabs from Spanish Food World. It’s a British website, so you’ll have to do some conversions if you’re used to the American method of cooking, but it looks delicious. Originally a Moorish dish made with spiced lamb, as seen here, this dish was later adapted for pork.

Moorish Lamb Kebabs

Ingredients

500 grams of diced lamb
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
1 teaspoon of ground coriander
1 teaspoon of paprika
1 teaspoon of turmeric
Half a teaspoon of salt
Half a teaspoon of black pepper

Preparation

Trim the meat into small bite size portions. Combine the oil with flavourings and turn the mixture thoroughly with the meat. Leave in a cool place overnight to allow the flavours to soak into the meat. The next day thread the meat on to the skewers, half a dozen pieces of meat per skewer. Preheat the grill or barbecue. Grill over a high heat, turning the skewers often, until they are wll and truly brown but still juicy. Check one piece of meat to make sure it is cooked through. Serve on the skewers and supply bread so that your friends can remove the meat from the skewers, if they so wish, using the bread.

Want to learn more about Spain’s culinary history? Check out these great sites: Spanish-food.org and FoodTimeline.org.