It was with a stack of reference books that I and my two mates, Nick Haddow and Ross O'Meara, set sail around Tasmania, filming Gourmet Farmer Afloat. Books of differing genres, too: History. Geography. Cuisine. And the cookbook that most touched our imaginations, that made us think about the places we saw on the horizon from a different perspective, was Australia’s first cookbook, The English & Australian Cookery Book, first published in 1864 anonymously, but the author was soon outed as the local dignitary Edward Abbott. This cookbook, touted as cookery for the many, as well as for “the upper ten thousand”, was an inspiring read. Not limited by geography, or by the current fashion for less than five ingredients (and without a method you can whip up after yoga), it opened our eyes to what must’ve been.
Why buy it?
Reading Abbott opens your eyes to how the world saw food at the time. He borrowed heavily from other tomes in English, published around the same time, but laced the book with local lore. Ways to cook emu and echidna, kangaroo brains and more. Want to learn how to roast and carve mutton, or make elderberry wine? It’s here. How to cook quail, or make orange flower water? That’s there, too; things you may find in a modern cookbook, and some way out of date, too coarse or bold for the modern palate.
I thought I’d read and cook more from Abbott’s book on the journey around our island home, but seasickness meant I could only dip between the pages in quieter coves. We did manage to take inspiration from Abbott as to how to cook our quail, and followed his advice to “baste incessantly”. Admittedly, some things, such as turtle – which has a starring role in Abbott’s chapter on game – were never going to be gracing our plates anyway.
Abbott shows that the early settlers grappled with local ingredients, and tried to make them part of their diet, but only on the fringes. The majority of the food was familiar to those in the old country – the book starts with a recipe for shin of beef soup – and yet, despite a strong focus on indigenous food, in its pages you see the start of our own culinary history. In fact, most of the dishes in it wouldn’t look out of place in a 1950s CWA cookbook, especially the recipes for dessert.
When Australia’s diet changed, we mostly just took out the good and the natural, and replaced it with the tinned and the processed. But a cook today can learn a lot from a man who never really did see his work as a bestseller.
History buffs, bonafide cookbook collectors, hunters who wouldn't shun a bit of emu on their fork.
Cook the book
The English & Australian Cookery Book by Edward Abbott (Tas Food Books, $75, hbk).
Gourmet Farmer Afloat starts Thursday 19 February, 7.30pm on SBS ONE.