Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cans for Christmas in Coolgardie.

When gold was discovered in Coolgardie, Western Australia in 1892 - just as the other goldfields reached depletion and the economy was struggling - the greatest gold-rush the country has ever seen began almost overnight. As with gold-rushes wherever they have occurred, camps were miserable, life was hard and hungry, and most miners stayed poor. One who did not was Newton Moore, later Premier of West Australia and then Agent-General for Western Australia in London. In 1911 at the inaugural luncheon of the Grocers’ Exhibition, he described his Christmas Dinner in Coolgardie in the 1890’s.

“Sir Newton Moore, that Australian statesman, who has the distinction of being the youngest Premier in the British Empire, took the chair at the inaugural lunch of the Grocers’ Exhibition at the Royal Agricultural Hall in Islington … Sir Newton, who today so ably fills the post of Agent-General … commenced his career as a pioneer prospector at Coolgardie, and, as he reminded his fellow-guests at the hall the other day, it fell to his lot, with some other hardy pioneers, to locate that goldmine which has since produced ₤100,000,000 worth of gold. The conditions under which those miners worked in those days on the West Australian goldfields were strenuous, though Sir Newton characteristically made light of them. An amusing sally occurred in his speech when he recalled a Christmas dinner he had eaten at Coolgardie 20 years ago, which consisted entirely of tinned food. The company started with tinned salmon, which was succeeded by tinned beef, while an appropriate finish was furnished by tinned plum pudding. We have Sir Newton’s word for it that the fare was excellent, both in quality and flavour, but, somehow, the prospect of a tinned banquet does not altogether appeal to us.”

It seems likely that Sir Newton and his friends, in their rough camps on the goldfields, simply opened the cans and ate the contents without much elegance or ceremony. The provenance of the canned food that made up their dinner is not known, but was presumably Australian – although in those times, as a matter of patriotic principle, food imported from ‘Home’ (that is, England) was highly prized no matter what the quality compared to the fresh version from the colony. The reverse trade, in tinned meat from Australia was hugely important in the later nineteenth century at both ends of the arrangement for reasons I explored in a previous story on this blog, and on the long-defunct companion site to this one. May I refer you to those stories for a refresher?

From Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (c1877) which gives us one-hundred recipes for Tinned Meat, Australian, I give you this horror.
G√Ęteau Australian.
Take a pie-dish, and butter it; cut hard-boiled eggs in slices, lay them round the sides of the dish and at the bottom. Then put slices of beef and mutton, and ham and bacon, and spread sliced pickles over each layer, with pepper, salt, and nutmeg; pour over it some good rich well-seasoned gravy in which one ounce of gelatine has been dissolved; let it stand till cold, turn out, and garnish with parsley.

Quotation for the Day.

Australia, n. A country lying in the South Sea, whose industrial and commercial development has been unspeakably retarded by an unfortunate dispute amongst geographers as to whether it is a continent or an island.
Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary.

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