I was flaneuring around Mosman, one of those leafy North Shore Sydney suburbs. looking at architecture and the pattern of life. The thing I most noticed was the absence of kitchen gardens. Houses had grown and gardens shrunk to mere decoration or, at best, extensions of indoor living. My mind was cast back…..
In January 1885, Albert Wright purchased Kangaroo Hills, now Wongwibinda, in the Falls country east of Armidale. It had all been done in a rush.
They had been living at Nulalbin outside Rockhampton. The year before eldest son Bertie had died after a lingering illness. The death came as a shock, and Albert and wife May decided that they must find a home in a more temperate climate.
They left Nulalbin in December 1884 for Bickham, a Wright family home in the Hunter Valley. In early January Albert went north, buying Kangaroo Hills on the spot. At end January, the whole family shifted to the new property.
Establishing the kitchen garden
One of Albert’s first acts was to plant a large vegetable garden near the new house being built for his family. This was a common pattern on properties, for the kitchen garden and associated fruit trees were critical to the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. It was a day’s ride to Armidale, so you could hardly buy there on a daily basis.
In town, people had more choices. Even so, most people had vegetable gardens, while much of the fruit and vegetables they might buy were grown locally. The Chinese market gardeners with their plots spread along the local creek were once a common feature in most Northern towns, part of the often unrecognised Chinese thread in the history of New England dating from the later 1840s.
There was much emphasis on the importance of the home garden for financial, health and indeed aesthetic reasons. The CWA (Country Women's Association) cookery book, long a kitchen bible, put it this way:
Home is not a Home without a garden. Plant one, and it will repay you.
Every wise housewife knows the value of the kitchen garden. It is a money saver, and a pleasure at all times. Nearly all vegetables are of easy culture. All soup vegetables should be grown at home. It is a great comfort to slip out and cut your own home requirements in your own back yard.
Digressing, Masterchef has been a popular Australian cooking show in which contestants compete by cooking particular dishes for judgement by an expert panel. Back in 2010, the challenge set for contestants in one show was to cook certain recipes from the CWA cookbook - scones, lamingtons, jam, a fruit cake - and then serve to 100 CWA ladies. An experienced CWA judge critiqued their efforts.
I was watching it with my family. Now we knew the CWA pretty well and had eaten a lot of country cooking. My then wife also learned to bake from her nan. I guess because of all this, we had a feel as to what might happen.
These contestants had cooked in challenge after challenge, managing often complicated dishes that I could never cook. There had been individual failures, but overall the results had been good. This time, with few exceptions, they bombed. It's just not as easy as it seems.
As the contest proceeded, I noticed that eldest had got out the cookbook I had given her. “I feel like scones”, she explained. Mixing bowls and ingredients appeared on the coffee table. With guidance from her mum, the process continued.
After the show finished, we discussed it over scones, blackberry jam and whipped cream. Our feeling was CWA 8, Masterchef 2. I digressed, but they were nice scones!
Developing a proper home garden was not always an easy task. At Kangaroo Hills, the spring of 1885 was a very good one. Albert planted onions, cabbages, lettuces, pumpkins, beans and fruit trees. Then came a sudden frost: “It seems useless”, a dispirited Albert wrote, “to try to grow anything in such a climate.” Nevertheless, he persevered, learning from experience.
Albert’s problems were not unusual. New England is marked by great variation in soils, temperature and rainfall from coastal subtropical to high country to semi-arid. The new settlers had to learn what would grow best, how to grow it. In many places, water had to be carefully rationed. Nevertheless, they persevered and finally succeeded. They learned how to create micro-climates through location, wind-breaks and walls. They also learned when to plant things to best effect..
Managing the kitchen garden
A reasonable size home garden could be a complex operation involving all the family. Herbs - lavender, thyme, marjoram, mint, sage, parsley and rosemary - were usually grown near the back door so that they could be easily picked for domestic purposes.
Further out were the vegetables grown in cycles depending on the growing season. Standard vegetables included onions, carrots, potatoes, peas and beans, sweet corn, pumpkins, lettuce, sometimes garlic although its use was then less common, cabbages, cauliflower, tomatoes, lettuce, silver beet, beetroot, parsnips and turnips. The compost heaps could normally be found near the vegetable garden, carefully maintained to provide a steady stream of compost to the changing beds.
The garden nearly always included vines and fruit trees. And then there were the flowers grown for decoration and to supply cut flowers to the house. Mum loved her flowers. She would go out with a basket and secateurs, bringing flowers back to the kitchen table (the working centre of the house) for shaping to fit the vases.
The exact mix of garden plants varied across New England depending on the soil and climate. In the case of our home garden - a large cool climate garden - there were the ubiquitous grape vines, three apricot trees, a rather superb plum tree, an apple tree, a fig tree, gooseberries, red and black currants, strawberries and raspberries as well as flowers and lots of vegetables. Sometimes In the mornings I would go outside and pick raspberries to bring back and crush with cream and sugar. Alternatively, I would pick a jar of preserves off the shelf made with the Fowlers Vacola outfit. This was stored in the garage for use during the flush times for various local fruits. I loved the black cherries.
Many gardens also contained a chook (poultry) yard providing fresh eggs and the sometimes fowl for dinner. In our case, the chook yard had high wire fences enclosing a properly constructed hen house with laying boxes plus a large area for the hens to roam.
Even in town, many families maintained a milker to provide milk, cream and butter. Staying at Glenroy, my aunt and uncle’s property at Kentucky south of Armidale, we used to get up early to go with Uncle Ron to see the cow milked. The milk would be brought back in a bucket and then heated gently to raise the cream that would be collected and used to make butter. In Armidale, mum would sometimes send us out to get fresh milk that came from a cow a few blocks away.
There was a clear division of labour within the garden. Prof (we all called him Prof when talking about and sometimes to him; earlier he had been called Doc by locals) was in charge of the main garden, digging the beds, planting, clearing weeds and collecting produce for the kitchen, mowing the lawns and splitting wood to feed the fires, In these roles he was assisted by old Mr Wallace who came in one morning a week.
As children we were fascinated by Mr Wallace. He told us stories about clearing the Dorrigo scrub for timber and to open the way for farms; he told us about bank crashes and showed us an old bank note from a now defunct bank; he also explained the evils of the papacy.
Mr Wallace believed that there was a papist plot to take over the world. While leaning on his shovel, he discoursed on the wickedness of Rome, the Pope and his cardinals. We had no idea what a papist was and only a vague idea of Rome’s location. Today, it is difficult for Australians to understand the depth of the sectarian divisions that marked much of Australia’s history, although conspiracy theories remain well entrenched.
Prof’s garden duties also included collecting the manure from the chook yard and distributing it across the garden beds or to feed multiple compost heaps. He was also responsible for trimming the hens’ wings to stop them flying, for collecting eggs and for preparation of the older birds for the table. This involved catching the bird and then chopping its head off on a chopping block kept for the purpose. This led the bird to run round in circles, something captured in the Australian phrase to run round like a headless chook (or chicken) meaning activity carried out in an uncontrolled or disorganised way without purpose. The bird was then plucked and its innards removed before it was ready for cooking.
This was not the only time that we saw animals killed for food. Apart from rabbits shot or trapped, some of my friends made their pocket money from trapping rabbits for supply to the local freezer, we also watched sheep being slaughtered for house meat on Glenroy, An older ewe near the end of its wool growing life was selected. This was then killed by a knife through the mouth into the brain. The animal was then gutted and skinned before being hung up for butchering.
As children, we took all this for granted. Today when I think of killing hens, sheep or the goats I I would quite like to keep, I feel a little squeamish. Our meat now comes neatly packaged. The actual act of killing seems remote, far removed, sanitised. I have to remind myself that it is part of life.
With the passage of time, maintenance of the chook yard became too time-consuming for our father. The chooks were removed, leaving the yard as part of our playground.
The reliance on locally produced produce created a pattern of seasonal gluts and shortages. As children we knew every fruit tree in the immediate area, knew when they were coming into fruit. We also picked and ate from the garden, new peas, tomatoes, fresh beans and little cucumbers. No problem in getting children to eat fruit or vegetables. Somehow things that we picked ourselves were just that much more satisfying.
For adults, hard work was involved. When produce was plentiful, people bottled, preserved or prepared for storage in cool, dry, dark places. It wasn’t just produce from the home garden. Fruit and vegetables now in abundant supply and therefore cheap were also purchased or given by relatives or friends. There was a considerable bottling ritual, a production process. The bottles were sterilised, the fruit cooked, the tomato relish made, the jams created, providing a steady stream of produce for the rest of the year. Some of the tastes were wonderful. Many of us would kill today for a jar of Aunt Kay’s tomato relish!
There have been many changes in Australian diet over the decades, changes that partially reflect changing fashions and the availability of food stuffs but also the tools available for cooking. Cooks have always had to match what they can do to the available equipment.
In our case, we had a substantial fuel stove that not only provided constant hot water but a substantial range of cooking options. It could be a bit cranky; you had to be able to judge the temperature, but that came with experience. The firebox was on the right. The temperature of the whole stove could be controlled by varying the intensity of the fire through a combination of fuel and dampers. The hot air from the fuel box ran along the top of the stove to the chimney on the left.
A hot plate ran the length of the stove with heat gradually diminishing towards the chimney. This allowed food to be cooked and then moved to a cooler place to set or stay warm. The ever present kettle could be moved from the left of the stove to the hotter right where it quickly boiled. The oven was on the left with a warming oven below, allowing food to be kept warm or plates to be warmed before serving.
Armidale can be warm in summer, cold in winter, In summer, the kitchen could be warm indeed with the stove adding to outside heat, leaving mum hot and sweaty. In winter, the stove came into its own drawing people into the kitchen warmth. This gave rise to the New England flick as the girls stood with their back to the stove, flicking up their skirts to allow the heat to circulate.
Having harvested, we ate. The food we ate was influenced by what we had in the garden, what had already been harvested and stored, the more limited foods available locally in the grocery stores, butchers and greengrocers.
The standard main meal was two courses, three for bigger meals. The central dish was a meat dish presented in different ways usually with two to three vegetables drawn from the garden. Growing up in sheep country, sheep meat was a staple. Beef, the major meat across Australia, was less common because it was more expensive, chicken less common still. This was followed by a desert often of bottled fruit, sometimes with fresh cream. In some cases soup preceded the main meal.
The exact mix of meals depended on what was available. Soups, stews and casseroles were common because these made best use of available produce. I still love the taste of fresh field mushrooms, of rich casserole sauces.
There was great variety in homemade soups. Some soups like chicken, often made from the remains of a bird previously killed, were relatively light, as were the beef broths served to invalids. Some soups were major meals in their own right, served with crusty bread.
Today we waste much food. The earlier cook-books had many recipes to take advantage of left-overs. There were good, practical, reasons for this. Food took a much higher proportion of family income than it does today.
The roast chook became soup, the vegetables went into bubble and squeak, the roast lamb or beef was minced for a new dish. I still miss the cast iron hand-mincer I inherited from my parents. I don’t know what happened to its innards, they went missing in one of our many moves. It was actually much more efficient (and easier to clean) than modern devices.
The pattern with other meals was a little different. Breakfast was generally a bigger meal than it is today. As children, we normally had porridge or wheat bix with hot milk followed by a hot dish, often bacon or some form of eggs or, more rarely steak. For a period modelling my Scottish grandfather, I ate my porridge with salt and cream. Later when things were busier, I would go outside and pick raspberries to bring back and crush with cream and sugar. Alternatively, I would pick a jar of preserves of the shelf or from the fridge and have it with cream.
Lunch, by contrast, was far more pedestrian depending on just what we were doing. In fact, lunch did not have a clear pattern because it varied so much depending on the main mea.. On Sundays then, as indeed now, lunch was often a roast dinner. The Sunday roast remains an enduring tradition in many Australian households. Where, as in this case, lunch was actually dinner, tea was a relatively light meal.
There were then no school canteens, nor were there the bars and other convenience snacks that today dominate the supermarket shelves. School lunches were sandwiches, a piece of fruit, often a piece of cake, and a drink. Looking back at some of the reminiscences from the 1950s, the memory of soggy tomato sandwiches seems to be a constant theme!
There were other meals and snacks, of course. The pattern here varied from family to family depending on income and taste.Then, as now, busy parents sometimes resorted to the very quick and easy. This was where tinned food came in handy. Tinned spaghetti or baked beans on buttered toast or tinned soups with bread fingers were common choices.
A Child’s playground
From a kid's perspective, one of the greatest things about the home garden was the way it provided trees to climb, places to hide, spots to dig in or to build camp fires. We were expert in fires, how to start them in the best way, how to build fireplaces. Potatoes cooked in the ashes were eaten, charcoal and all, with butter with the melting butter running down fingers. Nostalgia!
Beyond home, we also had access to our grand parents’ garden just a block away at 89 Mann Street, a large Federation style house. This was a much bigger garden.
Mann Street is one of Armidale’s grander streets, As the small city expanded, local businessmen, professionals and graziers started to build bigger houses on South Hill, first in Barney, then Brown and finally Mann Street. These houses were on big blocks looking north down to the shopping centre and then Dumaresq Creek, the small creek wandering through the centre of the town.
The blocks were large, often including stables, servant’s quarters, chook pens and cow byres for the milking cows, These features have disappeared now with subdivision, but Barney, Brown and Mann Street remain the heart of the Victorian city that is still one of Armidale’s architectural treasures.
Unusually, 89 was built from weatherboard rather than the more normal Armidale blue brick. The front of the house with its sweeping steps faced Dumaresq Creek. The back of the house with its formal garden and pine trees faced Mann Street. With time, this original distinction between back and front became confused. To us and indeed all visitors, the old back was now the front, the old front the back. It would be years before I discovered the reason
There were two garages facing Mann Street, one on each side of the block. At the Northern back (front!) of the house’ a hedge divided the main garden from the back yard. Beyond the hedge lay the tennis court, the kitchen garden and the old cow byre now incorporated in the chook yard. Our kelpie Rover used to love herding the chooks. He would divide them into two groups based on breed and then sit panting in the middle between the groups, satisfied with his efforts. For a period, there were also a few sheep really kept for sentimental purposes.
With the exception of the tennis court, we rarely went beyond the dividing hedge because this part of the garden was less interesting. From a young age, our grandfather and aunts taught us to play tennis using wooden rackets dating back to the 1930s. I have dreadful hand-eye coordination, but with practice became a reasonably competent player.
Mann Street was especially good for hide and seek because of its sheer size. The pedestals at the base of the front stairs acted as home base. The objective was to get there before the person who was in and then count 1.2,3 home. My favourite hiding spot was the roof of one of the garages where I could see the whole yard and thus sneak down to get to home first.
Our particular friends were the Halpin twins who lived half a block away. Father Bruce was a director of Richardson’s, the local departmental store, while mother Vee was a long standing friend of mum’s. We spent much time with them in our respective gardens and roaming the streets.
Growing up, my daughters loved the story of the three morning teas. We would start at 202 Marsh Street for the first, then to the Halpins for our second, finishing up at Mann Street for the third.
The kitchen garden’s decline
The kitchen garden has been in sad decline. The gardening folk memories that we used to absorb from our parents have also declined as a consequence. The decline began slowly and then accelerated during the busy 1980s.
Walking around Armidale or Queanbeyan during the 1970s,you would still see kitchen gardens everywhere. Queanbeyan, the NSW town just across the border from the Australian Capital Territory where I was then living, was a fascinating place with a large immigrant community that had come to work on the Snowy Hydroelectric Scheme or on the building of Canberra. They brought with them farming and gardening techniques from Eastern and Southern Europe where the home garden had been a way of life. This was industrial scale kitchen gardening where the garden and associated livestock provided much of the food over the year.
It also provided the base for a range of home-made alcohols that could be a real trap if you were involved in local politics as I was at the time. That one drink for hospitality purposes could extend and be repeated on calls elsewhere, creating a degree of unsteadiness by the end of that day’s visits.
By 2000, the decline in the kitchen garden was largely complete. Many things contributed to that collapse. Neighbours and councils began to object to the noise and smells associated with the garden, including the omnipresent hens. Blocks became smaller, flats or townhouses more common. More people rented. The supermarkets brought a wider range of cheaper foodstuffs, reducing the incentive to garden. Time became more precious as two income families tried to balance the demands of more complex lives.
Can the kitchen garden come back? I think not, although the increased interest in sustainability and the rise in community gardens do hold out some hope. The difficulty is that these things appeal to particular niche views and lifestyles whereas the old kitchen garden was an integral element in normal life.