Regular readers have probably deduced I’m a boomer – a member of that generation born after WWII when the troops came home. Along with more than one hundred thousand other Americans, my Da spent the war years in Australia.
In 1942 with Australian forces off fighting for England and Pearl Harbor a fresh victory, Japan advanced on Australia, intending to use it as a springboard to conquer the South Pacific. On May 8, Japanese and American forces engaged in the battle of the Coral Sea. In two hours it was over. Australia had been rescued from invasion, and the Yanks were welcomed by the Aussies like long-lost kin.
Like many another G.I., Da fell in love with the Land Down Under. PFC George Burns returned home with a big blue book about Australia, a box of photographs, and a kit-bag filled with memories. His tales of kangaroos and crocodiles were my favorite bedtime stories, and “Waltzing Matilda” was our song. “Australia’s one of the best places in the world!” was Da’s recommendation to all. When I traveled there to learn what had won his heart, I discovered there was more to the love affair than I’d ever been told. Just like America, Australia’s roots spring from Ireland. A third of the present population proudly claims Irish heritage.
On January 26, 1788, a fleet of English ships unloaded its cargo of convicts at the base of a sandstone bluff alongside Sydney harbor. More than 25 percent of the prisoners were Irish. Transported halfway around the world – many for deeds no more heinous than filching a loaf of bread to feed starving families – they had been sentenced to labor for life in the farthest territory of England’s empire. Leg irons were unnecessary. There was no escaping the remote penal colony.
Despite the strangeness of a land filled with rainbow-colored birds and peculiar hopping animals, shipmates and cellmates set to work. Canvas tents and wooden shacks soon speckled the craggy cliff and with wry humor the residents dubbed their settlement The Rocks. It quickly became one of the world’s most notorious ports. Legend has it that the noise could be heard two miles at sea and the stench was noticeable a mile off shore.
In 1978 The Rocks was granted Heritage Status, and what was once Australia’s most infamous district is now its most famous urban real estate. Tucked between the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the skyscrapers of the central business district, it faces the world-renowned Opera House. The Rocks boasts more pubs per square meter than any other district in Australia – a lingering phenomenon from the early days when dozens of industrious Irish publicans quenched the thirst of the world’s seamen.
Over the decades the number of Irish pubs dwindled until The Rocks’ venerable Mercantile Hotel was the only Celtic bastion left. All that changed in the early ’90’s when Donacha Reidy arrived from Limerick. With a background that includes the Paris Sheraton and Jury’s Dublin, Reidy has brought the craic back to Sydneytown. No slacker when it comes to picking a location, his first pub Kitty O’Shea’s (named for the legendary Dublin watering hole) is in the heart of fashionable Paddington. More pints of Guinness are pulled there than anywhere else in Australia, and there’s music every night.
In quick succession, Reidy opened several more pubs, but Kitty’s is the hub of Sydney’s St. Pat’s and Bloomsday celebrations, and Irish films have their Australian premiere bashes there. That may have played a part in Reidy being chosen to open a pub in Australia’s newest bid for global attention – the multi-million-dollar 20th Century Fox studio center. The pub’s Fox and Lion name plays on its cinema connection as well as Donacha’s personal passion. An avid huntsman since the tender age of 10, he is Master of the prestigious Southern Highlands Hunt in the Australian Capital Territory of Canberra, and he’s as keen to promote the sport Down Under as he is to keep the craic crackling.
Ireland’s influence in Australia goes far beyond mere drink.
During the Famine years, many Irish took advantage of assisted passage and offers of land grants in the remote and ragged outback. The sheep and cattle stations they built laid the foundation for Australia’s livestock industry and supplied the meat which for more than a hundred years accompanied the ubiquitous potato at Sunday roasts. The most useful utensil in every bush cook’s pantry was none other than the black iron pot that graced the hearth of every thatched cottage in Ireland. It was indispensable for cooking stews and the outback’s famous bread – damper, a close cousin to Irish soda bread.
In a serendipitous twist of fate, the lands deemed nearly worthless that hardy Irish pioneers settled a century ago are now some of Australia’s finest farm lands. Just about anything will grow in the rich soil of New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria, and the river valleys of South and Western Australia. The countryside’s rolling hills are covered in trellised grape vines, acres of vegetables, vast orchards of olives, stone fruits, apples, and even America’s own pumpkins and pecans.
Australia’s days of meat-and-potato meals are history. The wines from Down Under have already made their mark as some of the best vintages in the world, and Celtic names figure prominently on dozens of labels. Now the nation is winning international praise in the fine-dining arena as well. A cornucopia of prime meats, seafood, fruits, produce, exotic Pacific Rim ingredients and a new generation of chefs has put the nation at the cutting edge of modern cuisine. Chief among the culinary masters is a square-jawed, blue-eyed, devilishly handsome, incredibly talented fellow from Dublin.
In the heart of Sydney’s financial district, Liam Tomlin’s Banc Restaurant has received global recognition as the finest dining establishment in all of Australia. No mean feat in a country that has become one of the world’s most food-savvy nations. Though Tomlin frequently uses ingredients and recipes that have been central to the Irish diet for millennia, the brilliant way he combines and presents them is as fresh and stunning as a just-picked, vine-ripened Wexford strawberry.
At dinner recently I sampled a few of his creations. Sydney Rock Oysters on the half shell with seasoned cream and caviar. A demitasse of oyster stew that hid a plump poached oyster surprise. Roast salmon crowning creamy colcannon studded with tender prawn chunks. A wee glass of refreshing apple jelly sorbet and Calvados sabayon. The evening special was a version of crubeens the likes of which no Saturday night pub crawler could ever imagine. Bits of roast suckling pig suspended in a sweetbreads mousse atop finely diced winter root vegetables and garnished with a perfectly crisped tiny trotter! The grand finale was Liam’s signature dessert – Minestrone of Fresh Fruits – snippets of mixed fruits floating in chilled strawberry-raspberry nectar.
Sadly, Australia still suffers from the boringly trite misconception that kangaroos hop down the streets of Sydney and the population exists on a diet of Vegemite and meat pies. Nothing could be further from the truth. Roos are found in the outback and, thanks to chefs like Liam Tomlin, fabulous Aussie food is found everywhere. Sláinte! ♦
Roast Fillet of Salmon with Prawn Colcannon and Red Wine Sauce
The Salmon & Colcannon
24 thin slices of pancetta
3 cups mashed potatoes, seasoned with salt and pepper
3 cups cabbage, shredded, blanched, and drained
1 spring onion, diced
1 cup chives, diced
1 shallot, thinly sliced
1 pound cooked tiger prawns, chopped
4 6-oz salmon fillets
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter, melted
Heat oven to 350ºF and crisp pancetta on a cookie sheet. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, combine the colcannon ingredients: seasoned mashed potatoes, cabbage, spring onion, chives, shallot, and chopped prawns. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in a shallow pan of hot water to keep warm.
Season salmon with salt and pepper. Heat vegetable oil and sauté the salmon fiillets on one side. Turn and sauté until cooked through. Baste with melted butter and lemon juice.
Spoon large tablespoonfuls of prawn colcannon on the center of four warm plates. Drizzle with red wine sauce. place a salmon fillet on top of each colcannon mound. Garnish with crisp pancetta. Makes four servings.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 shallots, sliced
1 clove of garlic, sliced℘
1 sprig fresh thyme
3 cups red wine
1 cup port wine
1 cup beef stock
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Add shallots, garlic, and a pinch of salt and simmer until the shallots are wilted. Add thyme and pour in red wine and port. Reduce the volume over medium heat. In a separate saucepan, heat the beef stock to a boil and add wine reduction. Add more salt and pepper to taste. Strain and set aside.
Minestrone of Fresh Fruits
2 pounds strawberries
1 pound raspberries
2/3 cup sugar
Mixed fresh fruit
Clean, remove stems, and roughly chop strawberries. Mix them in a large, heatproof bowl with the raspberries and sugar, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Place the bowl over a pot of simmering water for one hour.
Remove from heat and cool in the refrigerator for another hour, then strain through a double layer of cheesecloth into a clean bowl. Do not press down on the fruit or the liquid will become cloudy. Discard the fruit pulp and chill the strained berry juice. When ready to serve, pour berry juice in dessert bowls and fill with chopped fruit and berries. (Liam suggests strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, thin peach or nectarine slices, and tiny cantaloupe or honeydew melon balls.)
– Recipes courtesy of Liam Tomlin, Banc Restaurant, Sydney, Australia