Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Kitchen Garden

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 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 Hill 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 the properties around Armidale, 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 the towns, 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 a common feature in most Northern towns.

Creating kitchen gardens was not always easy. The spring of 1885 was a very good one on Kangaroo Hill. Albert planted onions, cabbages, lettuces, pumpkins, beans and fruit trees. Then came that evil that those living in the New England high country know so well, a sudden frost. “It seems useless”, Albert wrote, “to try to grow anything in such a climate.”

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.

The importance of fruit and vegetables

The importance of fruit and vegetables in diet was stressed but not always complied with in a meat loving society. In 1893, Sydney doctor Philip E Muskett, one of the first Australian nutritionists, attacked Australians love of meat, tea and tobacco. Australians would be healthier, he suggested, if they ate more salads, drank more wine, substituted a small cup of coffee for tea and walked six or more miles a day. This advice was largely ignored.

The CWA (Country Women's Association) was more practical. Founded in 1922 to provide mutual support to country women often living in isolation, its long running cook book (it’s still in print) became something of a domestic bible. Home is not a Home without a garden. Plant one, and it will repay you” it stated:
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."
This advice combined an appeal to domestic values with the idea of economy and good cooking. Those CWA ladies became considerable cooks, capable of cooking for often large numbers with the sometimes limited ingredients at hand.

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 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 big time. It's just not as easy as it seems.

As the contest proceeded, I noticed that eldest had got out the cookbook I gave her some time ago. “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 digress, but they were nice scones!

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, with the mix varying depending on the climate. In the case of our home garden - a cool climate garden - there was the ubiquitous grape vine, three apricot trees, a rather superb plum tree, a fig tree, gooseberries, red and black currants, strawberries and raspberries. In warmer climates, you might find passion fruit and citrus trees.

Many gardens also contained a chook (hen) yard providing fresh eggs and the sometimes fowl for dinner. Some breeding their own chicks maintained roosters whose crowing could disturb the town neighbourhood. As a child, I hated discovery an embryo in the egg. The manure from the yard was collected and used to fertilise the beds.

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.

Then there were the flowers grown both for decoration and to supply cut flowers to the house. At home, they would be cut and then brought into the kitchen for trimming and placement in the multiple vases that Mum had placed on the kitchen table. I have some of those vases in front of me as I write, although I fear that my use of them is now, at best, irregular.

Harvest Time

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 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!

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!

Australia’s changing diet

There is an enduring myth that Australians only discovered nice food with the arrival of new migrant groups after the Second World War. This myth compares the perceived standard meal of meat and three over-cooked vegetables with the variety in Australian diet that we now have.

Like most myths, there is a kernel of truth. Many more food options are now available. In my own case, for example, olive oil has moved from something that was a medicine when I was a child to a cooking staple. I use more garlic, a greater variety of herbs. There is far more variety in salads, we use more lentils. These are all gains. That said, the history of Australian food is far more complex than people realise.

The Australian diet has changed many times since the European occupation of the continent, It has also varied from area to area. Take, as a simple example, the decline in the calories required to support daily activities.

At the end of the nineteenth century, men humped weights as a matter of course that would now be illegal outside gyms. On the female side, too, the eighty per cent of women without servants engaged in the sheer physical drudgery of maintaining households without those labour saving devices we now take for granted. Both men and women walked long distances as a matter of course.

As life became more sedentary, the required daily calorie intake dropped. My best guess, and it is only a guess, is that it may well have halved over the twentieth century. This led to changes in food tastes.
At the start of the twentieth century, cook books were full of cake and biscuit recipes. They ran for pages. There were hundreds of local variations. Cakes were eaten at meals, served to visitors, taken in packed lunches. By the end of the twentieth century, the cake was largely vanquished. This was partly due to greater choice in sweet things including ice cream, more to the decline in calorie requirements. Even the CWA cookbook, that bastion of cakes and baking, has dropped some of its traditional recipes, replacing them with low carb options.

Now, too, we waste more food. The earlier cook-books had many recipes to take advantage of left-overs. There were good, practical, reasons for this emphasis. Food took a much higher proportion of family income than it does today for most.

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.

Recognising that we clearly have more variety in food today, it is less clear that we eat better. The opposite may in fact be the case as preparation is replaced by convenience. Now we obsess about diet and dieting.

The emphasis on proper nutrition is not new. At least from the time of Philip Muskett in 1893 through the first CWA cookbook to the domestic science lessons, official pronouncements and cookbooks of the 1930s, the need for a balanced diet was recognised and emphasised. One result was a focus on the dreaded meat and three vegetables since that was an easy way to prepare standard balanced meal. Today we have gone further: we search for miracle diets that will somehow reduce our weight, avoid allergies and improve our overall health and longevity. And all with minimum effort!.

The many changes in Australian diet over the years partially reflects changing fashions and the availability of food stuffs, but also the tools available for cooking. Cooks have to match what they do to the available equipment. Thus the open fire and camp oven was replaced by the fuel stove and then the generally smaller gas or electric stoves better suited to the smaller kitchens in the growing urban areas. These had advantages, but also limited what could be cooked. Today, bigger kitchens are back along with a new range of BBQ 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. This allowed food to be kept warm or plates to be warmed before serving. Later, my mother acquired an electric fry pan, a useful supplement when time was pressing.

The food we ate was influenced by what we had in the garden, what had already been harvested and stored. The standard main meal was two courses, three for bigger meals. The main dish consisted of 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.

This main meal; was followed by a desert often of bottled fruit, sometimes with fresh cream or (more rarely) ice cream. In some cases soup preceded the main meal.

The exact mix of main meals depended on what was available. Soups, stews, roasts and casseroles were common because these made best use of available produce. I still love the taste of fresh field mushrooms, of rich casserole sauce.

There was great variety in home made soups. Some soups like chicken, often made from the remains of a bird previously killed, were relatively light, as were the broths served to invalids. Some soups were major meals in their own right, served with crusty bread.

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 meal, often bacon or some form of eggs. 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. 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 now 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.

The kitchen garden’s decline

The kitchen garden that used to be common in both city and country 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 does 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. 
Note to readers: Every Wednesday I am going to bring up one draft chapter of New England Travels, the book I have been working on. Each chapter is self contained and varies in length from 500 to 3000 words. I am not including images. I will add those later. This chapter forms part of a bigger section entitled family life.   


sohail said...

Kitchen gardening is a way to get benefits in two ways, the first one is gaining kitchen foods, and the second one is maintaining the home beauty with green plants, and trees in the home. Jims Mowing is garden care and maintenance services provider company in Melbourne which aims to help out the people to grow gardens for their kitchens.

Jim Belshaw said...

Although this is really a spam comment, I will let it stand because it does say something. And I have used Jim's mowing!

marcellous said...

For kitchen gardening you need time and land, both of which are in increasingly short supply.

Aoart from herbs, Few of my own rather desultory efforts have ever proved particularly effective either on a cost or quality basis. Shortcomings on the latter (generally on account of lack of skill) tend to detract from the potential freshness dividend.

Jim Belshaw said...

Did you grow up with a garden, marcellous? I did, and my gardening efforts have been generally successful except where loss of interest or loss of time intervened. Or a move to a new house on a short term lease!

Which brings me to that fact that you are right about time and space. But you have to add rental as well

marcellous said...

I didn't grow up with a kitchen garden. My father favoured a "bush garden" which over the years meant increasingly large trees and very little sun at ground level. I don't recall either of my parents ever showing signs of being tempted to grow their own edible produce, apart from a "mushroom farm" under the house and home-brewed beer.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's interesting, marcellous. The bush or Australian native garden started, I think, to become a trend in the 1950s. They can be designed to accommodate vegetables and fruits, but they also fall in the plant and forget category. The modern, small decorator gardens tend to have limited light, too. About the only exception today in the decline of gardening seems to be herbs.

Ruth Cotton said...

Jim, what a delightful meander through the history of the kitchen garden. Now you've described the features of creating a micro-climate, I realise that is what I saw in my sister's garden at 'Springmount', out of Armidale, years ago - no doubt installed by previous generations, and enabling her to grow an incredible range of herbs and vegetables. No such luck for me in Canberra in the 1970s, trying to grow tomatoes in another chilly spring - clearly I was lacking the wisdom of those early settlers!