Pleasures of the country table

In The Australian Ugliness, published in 1960, the architect Robin Boyd remembered a meal in a hotel dining room in Yass, New South Wales, served by "a waiter with arms bare to the pits dealing out soup bowls like playing cards round the packed table and responding to my circumspect enquiry about the possibility of a glass of wine with the succinct phrase, ‘I think you’ll be stiff, mate.’"

If the book is ever reprinted – and it is among the best books about Australian life and culture ever written – one hopes the publisher will not allow this anecdote to stand unrevised. Everyone knows, thanks to publications like "Epicure" in the Melbourne Age and interminable television hash-slinging competitions, that Australia’s cuisine has come of age, and that the sunburnt country’s hotels and restaurants lead the world in culinary excellence, hospitality etc. Not only that, but they are awash with wine. Had he been travelling today Robin could almost have floated out the door on it. Whatever may have been the case in 1960 cannot be allowed to cast a shadow over the gastronome’s paradise we enjoy on our lucky continent today.

Leading cookery writer and culinary authority Stephanie Swill has had the inspired idea of drafting a revised version of Boyd’s story, suitable for inclusion in any new edition of The Australian Ugliness (which she feels should be retitled The Australian Beautiness). Substituting herself for Boyd, she writes:

Motoring from Sydney to Melbourne I decided to sample one of the many five-star restaurants listed in my trusty copy of A Gourmet’s Guide to the Hume Highway (ed. S. Swill). I turned off the freeway at Yass, where the historic old Mulcahy’s Racing Greyhound Hotel beckoned with its celebrated menu, much praised by contributors to the Guide, of fresh local ingredients imaginatively presented with Provencal flair, Tuscan brio, Thai subtlety, Japanese politeness etc. and last but not least Aussie sophistication.

In response to my quite uncircumspect enquiry about the possibility of a glass – nay, two glasses, three, a bottle, two bottles – of wine, a beaming waiter with arms bare (and tattooed) to the pits and dark blue singlet with the legend "Say Yes to Yass" produced from the recesses of his khaki shorts a map showing all the "wine regions" into which the district is divided. Within a radius of five kilometres, he told me, there are no fewer than seventeen thousand vineyards, each producing wines that are the envy of the world. Indeed, so keen are locals on their "drop" that the nearby Botanic Gardens and the backyard of the hotel itself have been turned over to viticulture (my waiter particularly recommended a sparkling light white, "Chateau Gullytrap", grown, he told me, in the corner of the yard near the drainage facility of that name between the clothes line and the outside gents’).

For his part, the enlightened patron of the hotel, Phonse Mulcahy, has forbidden the serving of meals without wine and stipulated that as a condition of entry to his dining room all customers must sample a minimum of twenty Yass vintages. Very civilised.

With a cheery ‘there yer go’ from the waiter, the menu arrived (a little stickier to the touch than I am used to) and I turned to the pleasant task of ordering from a veritable cornucopia of genuine Australian country dishes, from eucalyptus lasagne and Boston baked beans with sugar ants to "campfire-grilled" wallaby kassler, koala-mince moussaka and Moreton Bay fig tarte tatin. There was also a sumptuous list of locally made cheeses, from which the waiter suggested as particularly fine a double sheepdip-washed roquefort he said was ripening in the meat safe outside and the aroma of which I was sure I could detect even at my table.

Gazing around the tastefully rustic dining room with its interesting framed photographs of 1950s football teams and in the not too distant background the traditional dulcet tones, so beloved of country folk, of a race caller on the huge television in the bar sounding as though he were about to have apoplexy, I reflected with pride how far fine dining in Australia has progressed from the days of bare-armed waiters dealing out soup bowls like playing cards.

My reverie was interrupted by a dispute at a far table. An inconsequential little man, who looked as if he wouldn’t know the first thing about good food, was raising his voice to the waiter. ‘I said I’d like a cup of tea,’ he cried. ‘And I said you’ll be stiff, mate,’ replied the waiter. ‘This is a gourmet restaurong. Tea, unless it’s rose hip, wildflower or wattle, isn’t part of Australia’s new sophisticated international cuisine. Yer drink wine here and like it or yer sod off.’

‘Bravo!’ I called to the waiter in my impeccable Italian, acquired on my many visits to that country with its wonderful history of food. ‘It’s people like you who are upholding the standards of hospitality and service which make Australian dining so unique. A cup of tea indeed!’

The waiter looked across at me. ‘Are you deaf or somethink? I said no tea here, grandma. I just told this dickhead. If you want to take the mickey why don’t youse pay yer bill and piss off before I kick yer out, you old bat.’

Christopher Akehurst blogs at Argus-online

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